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Saturday, June 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Continue Reading This Opening?

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 15.

This week’s questions:

I have no clue at this point if it would make a reader want to continue, if it has too much backstory, and if Nettie comes across as someone a reader might want to know more about.

Market/Genre: Crime Novel

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath. The children scrambled into coats and jackets.

“...tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery, the icy air rasping my cheeks. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

I trudged back to Northside. Food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue a tall cop hustled a small brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal.”

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s

My Thoughts in Blue:

I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

The bell rang. I let out a breath. The children scrambled into coats and jackets.

“...tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted.

I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery, the icy air rasping my cheeks. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month.

“I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.”

I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. [this reads like an interruption…] Someday, I’d mean those words.

A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash. [is this important to Miss Glass?]

I trudged back to Northside. Food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters.

On Huron Avenue a tall cop hustled a small brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware.

“I did not steal.”

He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

“Look at me, bitch.”

That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together.

For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six-year-old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet.

He never paid. No justice for my parents.

I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s.

The Questions:

I have no clue at this point if it would make a reader want to continue, if it has too much backstory, and if Nettie comes across as someone a reader might want to know more about.

I like this opening very much, and would happily turn the page based solely on the final, perhaps pending, confrontation. Nothing like a bully who did personal wrongs to someone as a child, and maybe more, yet still lives and bullies on.

As an aside here, I will mention that by the end of the sample, I was wondering how readers would paint the characters and scenes that have been presented, in the sparse way you have presented them.

You express concerns about too much backstory, and yet the lack of backstory is precisely what brought this query to my mind. In this sparse environment, I was forced to create characters and surroundings with your hints and my imagination.

That’s just fine and we want that interaction. However, when the potential encounter with the bully cop was presented, the fact that his target was presented as a ‘small brown-skinned woman’ immediately snapped my biased assumptions into place. We all do this to a degree, but it was interesting to me that your piece set up a story without real qualifiers, beyond the season, of course – and then, this small, casually presented qualifier seemed to trigger an instantaneous change in interpretation. I’m stuck between it being a good thing or not, but have decided anything that restrains the reader from making assumptions is a good thing. And that thread of being unsure was also part of what would keep me reading.

Some other thoughts:

I did wonder if the clock-watching was a daily ritual. It portrayed boredom, weariness. In fact, the overwhelming feeling was of dread, the visit to the graveyard a sworn duty that carried no real joy. The reason given for the duty appears to be guilt-driven, a terrible burden to carry, year after year. She ‘plods’ to the cemetery…

The introduction of her boots becoming wet inside was confusing. I see where it works if we want to hint that the boots are worn or torn and obviously don’t serve their purpose. It’s the placement that throws me. I’d rather it be moved or removed so the reference to her being ‘fine’ is tighter and better matches the pacing and rhythm you’ve established.

The line about the cemetery having a caretaker seems important, but is presented as a statement, so we don’t know if this is important to Miss Glass, or just an observation of fact. There is also a break in continuity here, to me, as the character is not actually placed at/in the cemetery. I needed something more here to establish that she was there. I expected some kind of interaction or personal observation.

I also struggled with the tense of this line: “I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.” because I wanted the past tense, yet also could accept it as is. It stopped me, which is the point. You didn’t (I assume) want me stopping at that point.

Then, when we reach this line: “I trudged back to Northside.” the material changes. This could be the beginning of the story. It’s alive, engaging and I worked for nothing – you carried me into this character’s world very abruptly and I’m hooked!

I would not tell you to reconsider your starting place, as I think it taught me your style and gave me an image of a dutiful daughter, single still, making the best of things as a 2nd grade teacher, without the support of her parents. The idea that this woman may have to confront someone she has avoided for 26 years has me a bit prickly on her behalf. The hint that she was drug from a closet darkens the past very effectively.

I think you have an interesting beginning here, and I enjoy what feels like a ‘slow boil, frog in pot, dying’ presentation. We don’t know where we’re going for sure, but does it seem hot in here? (readers please chime in and give this brave author your opinions and props)

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.

Website | Twitter

4 comments:

  1. It goes from scattered backstory on p. 1 to a confrontation on p. 2. I don't think you can be in both places at once. While I'm not at all enamored of openings that are setup/backstory, if I encounter one, that's what I set out to read, and so the confrontation came off as jarring.

    And then the "confrontation" becomes backstory as well. ("No justice for my parents.") So at this point, there'd have to be some external reason to keep reading - a great review, say.

    Finally, there is almost no variation in sentence/paragraph rhythm here. Lots of simple, declarative sentences coupled with description fragments (and note that two of these in a row are three-item fragments, which contributes to a sameness of rhythm).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous9:36 PM EDT

    My two cents: This line - “I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.” - read smoothly to me and made complete sense. I agree about moving the line about the boots. I like the weariness of the first part.

    I could see that others might disagree with me on this point - but the line about "He never paid. No justice for my parents." was too much backstory for me at this point. I'm not sure why, though, I think it was just a bit overwhelming along with her being dragged out of the closet.

    I liked it and was curious what was coming up, so I would read on.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My thoughts in caps -

    I twirled a pencil. My second-graders rustled papers, whispered. We all watched the clock, how slow its hands moved.

    The bell rang. I let out a breath. The children scrambled into coats and jackets.

    “...tomorrow, Miss Glass,” several shouted. THIS MAKES ME FEEL LIKE THE KIDS LIKE HER - SO I WONDER WHY SHE IS ALSO WATCHING THE TIME AS IF SHE WANTS THE DAY TO END - MAYBE DRAW US IN BY HER HELPING A CHILD

    I plodded from school to the Blue Lake City cemetery, the icy air rasping my cheeks. After the years I couldn’t, I now forced myself to visit my parents once a month. DON'T LIKE THE WORD PLODDED - NOT SURE WHY BUT IT DOESN'T FEEL LIKE IT FITS HERE. WHERE ARE WE - HOW FAR FROM SCHOOL. WHY TODAY?

    “I’m fine,” I told my mother. “Really.” THIS TAKES ME OUT - IF SHE IS TALKING TO HER DEAD MOTHER, I'D RATHER SEE THIS AT THE GRAVE. MAYBE MOVING A FORGOTTEN WEED AND SAYING THIS TO HER MOTHER - WANT TO FEEL THE EMOTION YOU ARE TYING TO THE MOMENT. I THINK WAHT WE ARE MISSING HERE IS SETTING.

    I kicked at the slush of the last snow. The inside of my fur-lined boots grew wet. Someday, I’d mean those words.

    A caretaker tended the graves. No gray lumps of old snow, no weeds, no trash.

    I trudged back to Northside. Food wrappers rattled on broken pavements, burnt out street lights, the remains of the last three snowstorms packed the gutters. NOT SURE IF THE LAST PARAGRAPH AND THIS ONE IS TO SHOW THE YING/YANG OF HER PARENTS BEING TAKEN CARE OF BUT SHE LIVES IN A PLACE THAT'S NOT?

    On Huron Avenue a tall cop hustled a small brown-skinned woman out of Ray’s Hardware. I AGREE WITH ABOVE - IF SHE IS A BROWN-SKINNED WOMAN THAT SHOULD HAVE SOME RELEVANCE TO THE STORY -

    “I did not steal.”

    He leaned forward. She retreated and bowed her head.

    “Look at me, bitch.”

    That deep voice. Redmann. I twisted my fingers together. I LIKE THIS GESTURE AND THE WAY THIS LINE READS

    For years I’d avoided him, and he might not recognize in a twenty-six year old the terrified child he dragged out of the closet. I'D LOSE THE WORD "AND"

    He never paid. No justice for my parents. THIS FEELS LIKE A BLAST OF BACKSTORY.

    I ducked my head and hurried into Johnny O’s

    I like the feel of the story - and I like her voice. If I was reading this, I would turn the page. Ducking into Johnny's O's makes me want to follow her. Lot's of good stuff in here, needing just some minor adjustments.

    great work!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm a big believer in starting a story in the right place... and I don't think starting with two separate snapshots (class and graveside) before we meet the real conflict leads us in properly. Sparseness has its place, but to me doing this as a first page feels like trying to have two starts without really connecting us with either.

    A teacher is sympathetic-- though one who's counting down seconds doesn't touch us the way making the most of that time for her kids would. Visiting her parents and pretending to be fine is sweet. But by this time the more traditional readers will be already wondering why you gave them both these separate moments without pulling us in deeper.

    Meeting Redmann is the start of the story proper. That doesn't mean the first scene can't be something else, but if it is it should be something that involves us more, and gives us a sense of who Nettie is so we're ready for the next challenge of "Oh, now THIS kind of person has to deal with THAT!" I think a moment with the children might do better than the graves; opening at a graveside is hard to make unique, and it's even more obvious if you go from there to the killer.

    Another approach might be to start on the street, with some conversation or thought that actually touches on both her class and the gravesite. Eg wishing she'd been able to help one child more and recalling that it made her "I'm fine" harder than usual to believe. An initial moment like that could capture and combine both of the moments you have without letting the reader think you're wandering, and it might leave her on the street about to see Redmann. If you want those two pieces of her life first, that might be the way to do it.

    "Backstory" can be a dirty word to some writers. I don't think it's a problem, if we have an immediate reason to care about something and we get a certain amount of backstory as part of why it matters. (Part of that is that measured amount--"he never paid" is just fine, but spending seven or eight lines or more would be harder until you'd build up more interest for us.)

    This is an interesting setup. I just don't want it afraid to pick a single starting point.

    ReplyDelete