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Saturday, June 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Page Feel Slow?

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: None

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

This week’s questions:

I'm trying to establish the narrator's personality and the environment he's operating in. I'm worried this opening may be slow because it's telling. Can I have your opinion on this?

Market/Genre: Humorous Mystery (Heist)

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

It's Saturday afternoon at Ma Vu's poker game and I'm raking daddy's tuition money off a frat boy down from Stanford. The Nguyen brothers, Wheezy and Long, taunted him into a drinking contest. Since he can't seem to distinguish between them, he's been going two-for-one with a pair of world-class drinkers since noon. He's so far gone you could reach out and snatch his chips without him noticing, but you know I'd never do anything like that.

Ma rents the storage room behind Rubber Soul in Japantown for the evening. Her daughter Anh runs the game, and Juanita sells drinks from a fold-up table. The brothers are up a few bucks in spite of the shots. Long's buddy Ying hasn't even had one drink, but a run of bad play leaves her way short. This early, the other players are all amateur hour. Gawkers wait for a seat to come open. I order up another tonic and lime, settling in for a profitable evening, when my phone rings. Sofia.

Got no reason to hold on to unsuited crap so I fold my hand and answer. "Hey Love."

"Calvin, there are people in the pool."

"We told Maite she could use it for Javier's birthday. Let the kid have his day." Wrong answer.

"You told them they had to leave by five," she said.

Sure enough, it’s five past five and this is gonna be an issue.

My Thoughts in Blue:

It's Saturday afternoon at Ma Vu's poker game and I'm raking daddy's tuition money off a frat boy down from Stanford. Fun opening line The Nguyen brothers, Wheezy and Long, [taunted him] this feels “right now,” not “did this earlier” so perhaps adjust to show it had happened earlier into a drinking contest. Since he can't seem to distinguish between them, he's been going two-for-one with a pair of world-class drinkers since noon. He's so far gone you could reach out and snatch his chips without him noticing, but you know [I'd never do anything like that.] I’m not sure if he’s serious here, which makes me wonder if he would indeed do that, so it sets up a nice ambiguity about his ethics

Ma rents the storage room behind Rubber Soul in Japantown for the evening. Her daughter Anh runs the game, and Juanita sells drinks from a fold-up table. The brothers are up a few bucks in spite of the shots. [Long's buddy Ying hasn't even had one drink, but a run of bad play leaves her way short.] could cut to eliminate a few names This early, the other players are all amateur hour. Gawkers wait for a seat to come open. I order up another tonic and lime, settling in for a profitable evening, when my phone rings. Sofia. There are a lot of names in this paragraph

[Got no reason to hold on to unsuited crap ] nice so I fold my hand and answer. "Hey Love."

"Calvin, there are people in the pool." An internal thought from Calvin after this could help establish context for who Sofia and Maite are

"We told Maite she could use it for Javier's birthday. At this point, the names become too much Let the kid have his day." Wrong answer.

"You told them they had to leave by five," she said.

Sure enough, it’s five past five and this is gonna be an issue.

The Questions:

1. I'm trying to establish the narrator's personality and the environment he's operating in. I'm worried this opening may be slow because it's telling. Can I have your opinion on this?

I don’t feel that it’s slow (readers chime in), or telling. Calvin is describing his location and who’s in it, but his voice is strong and every detail is colored by his opinion, which keeps it from feeling told. He also has reasons for noticing most of what he’s noticing, as it pertains to the poker game. He has to be aware of the other players in order to read them. It makes sense that he’d notice everything in the room.

(Here’s more on Write What You Don't Know: POV and Description)

There’s drive in the scene because Calvin is planning on making money off the amateurs, and clearly has no issue with fleecing them. The call from Sofia introduces some conflict, as Calvin still being at the game after five is a problem.

From this, I get the sense that Calvin is a good poker player, and has skill at reading people and situations. He knows everyone there, so he’s a regular. He’s potentially in the gray area ethically (says nothing about the Nguyen brothers tricking the guy), yet he also does something nice for a kid on his birthday, which shows a softer likable side.

The only real issue I had in this was all the names. I can mostly stay with it at first, but by the time the phones rings and three more names are added out of context, I can no longer keep up.

(Here's more on Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

I don’t mind a lot of names in the beginning, because it establishes Calvin is a regular and knows everyone. And the people he names are connected to what’s going on in the scene. There are a few you could cut, though I do like how they read and set the scene. If this is a location that readers will see a lot of in the book, knowing everyone here makes sense. If this isn’t going to be a big part of the book, you can cut way back.

Naming a character suggests to readers that that character is worth remembering, and they’ll likely be part of the story. However, using a lot of names at once like this does, can also signal that the names and characters aren’t important, but the fact that that narrator knows them all is.

(Here’s more on Does Your Novel Have Too Many Characters?)

I’d suggest adding a little more context in the phone call so readers understand who Maite and Javier are. I gather Sofia is a girlfriend since Calvin calls her love, but if that’s not true, then also show who Sofia is. I understand who all the people in Ma’s game are, but not who anyone on the phone call is, and that seems to be where the conflict lies.

You don’t need a lot, just a few words like you did for the rest. One internal thought after “people in the pool” that shows his reaction to who those people are would probably do it. I imagine this goes more into who Sofia and Maite are right after this, since that’s where the story is going and what is likely going to pull Calvin out of the game and his chance at easy money.

Overall, I like this and I’d keep reading, though I’d hope it would clarify who Sofia and Maite are. Javier looks like a friend of Maite’s, so I’m not as concerned about him. The voice is good, I like Calvin, and I’m curious to see where ti will go.

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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2 comments:

  1. Like Janice said, the details work well, but with so many people you could prioritize who gets a name and how we see them. Sofia could bring up a quick thought from Calvin to establish her as a girlfriend, while more of the poker crowd could be just "the Nguyen brothers" or "that kid in the corner." We want to feel like we know them through Calvin's eyes, but we also want to share Calvin's comfortable sense of which ones are important and which ultimately aren't, so we don't drown in names. Some of them (like Juanita and Anh) might be important but could still do better if you brought them in a page or two later, and you could fill their space with more about the named or nameless characters you've already shown.

    Starting slow... that's partly a genre decision. You certainly do it well, but you want to be sure that humorous mysteries like this have enough leeway for it-- not just that a few books take this long or that its big names get away with it, but that enough typical tales do this. If they do, readers will savor this; if it's uncommon, you may want to tighten it up and come back to some of this later.

    If you decide to tighten it, I see two ways: either let the call go quickly to a sign that something is Very Wrong there, or let it take its time but make the phone ring just a few lines into the story. (Calvin could even stay half-aware of the game or go back to it until the news gets worse; as long as the call starts fast we know it'll be key.) It's the one-two punch of waiting two paragraphs before the story proper starts and the start itself still being so slow that might bother impatient readers. And again, that's if typical standards don't apply. I can easily believe that "humorous mystery" writers love a slow opening, if it's done this well.

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  2. Thank you for your comments. I hadn't noticed all the names when I wrote it, but you and another reader both called it out. I'll need to smooth that out.
    Thank you for all your advice to writers. I get as much out of seeing other critiques as of my own. Your craft articles are thought provoking.

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