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Saturday, July 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Is There Enough Tension and Interest to Keep You Reading?

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 July 27.

This week’s questions:

1. What are your expectations from these opening lines?

2. In your view, what promise is made to the reader?

3. Is there enough tension to keep you reading?

4. What is your overall impression?

Market/Genre: General Fiction

Note: This is a revised snippet: Here’s the original if you’d like to see what the author did

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: The Prologue takes place 25 years before the main story begins and is used to establish both theme and setting of the novel, neither of which can be established in the opening Chapters.

On March 25, 1948, the day they slaughtered her sister, was the day her dreams for peace crumbled and scattered like chaff before the wind. It was the day she realized that in this land, at this time, co-existence with their neighbors was as elusive as a fading shadow.

By a cruel twist of fate, however, it was also the day that would bring about her most cherished desire.

The previous afternoon had found her working in the date plantation of Kibbutz Ramat Yarden, one of several communal agricultural settlements established in the Beth Shean Valley during the late 1930's. Tu B’Shvat, the Year of New Trees, had long since passed, but she’d still had holes to dig, saplings to transplant and in general do what she emigrated to Palestine for—to work the land and make the desert bloom.

She gathered her tools and stumbled to the waiting wagon to join the rest of the team. Dusk was falling fast and in the swiftly fading light, the rickety old John Deere tractor trundled and cranked its laborious way along the rutted mud tracks of the date plantation. Minutes later, it turned onto the dirt road leading back to the kibbutz to join the work details returning from the fish-ponds, citrus groves and wheat fields. Each work detail carried its own armed guard and Hava, acclaimed for her sharp eyes, steady hand and level-headedness, accepted the job with some reluctance. Hours of hoeing and lifting, planting and irrigating had strained her back and wrenched her muscles but worst of all were the crippling cramps she recognized as the early signs of another miscarriage.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[On March 25, 1948, the day they slaughtered her sister, was the day her dreams for peace crumbled and scattered like chaff before the wind.] Intriguing line, though the way it’s written made me stumble a bit. Perhaps just use the date like a subhead? It was the day she realized that in this land, at this time, co-existence with [their] perhaps “her?” Since we’re talking about one person, the pronoun felt off to me neighbors was as elusive as a fading shadow.

By a cruel twist of fate, however, it was also the day that would bring about [her most cherished desire.Intriguing 

The previous afternoon had found her working in the date plantation of Kibbutz Ramat Yarden, one of several communal agricultural settlements established in the Beth Shean Valley during the late [1930's.] 1930s Tu B’Shvat, the Year of New Trees, had long since passed, but she’d still had holes to dig, saplings to transplant and in general do what she emigrated to Palestine for—to work the land and make the desert bloom.

She gathered her tools and stumbled to the waiting wagon to join the rest of the team. Dusk was falling fast and in the swiftly fading light, the rickety old John Deere tractor trundled and cranked its laborious way along the rutted mud tracks of the date plantation. Minutes later, it turned onto the dirt road leading back to the kibbutz to join the work details returning from the fish-ponds, citrus groves and wheat fields.

Feels like it needs a new paragraph break about here. Each work detail carried its own armed guard and [Hava,] is this is same woman from the opening paragraph? Perhaps name her earlier acclaimed for her sharp eyes, steady hand and level-headedness, accepted the job with some reluctance. Hours of hoeing and lifting, planting and irrigating had strained her back and wrenched her muscles but worst of all were the crippling cramps she recognized as [the early signs of another miscarriage.] Shows where the scene is going. I don't know how pregnant she is, so is this actually labor and her child is about to be born on the same day her sister dies? That isn't clear  

The Questions:

1. What are your expectations from these opening lines?


I expect she’ll have a miscarriage and it will affect her job/life there in some way, or she might be in labor and get the child she's been wanting. It would depend on knowing how far along she is in her pregnancy. I also expect her sister to die the next day and see how she was killed, I assume, by the neighbors. The woman (Hava?) might be chased out of Palestine as well if things are heating up there (readers chime in).

I’m not yet getting a strong sense of a story or where it’s going though. But this reads more literary fiction in tone, and literary novels have much slower openings and pacing. I am getting a sad, wistful tone from this. It feels “tired and sad,” which is how I think the narrator feels.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between a Limited and a Tight Point of View)

2. In your view, what promise is made to the reader?

That I’ll see the circumstances around the sister’s death and what happens with the pregnancy.

3. Is there enough tension to keep you reading?

For me, not yet (readers chime in here). It’s a distant omniscient narrator, so I’m having a hard time connecting to the woman and what’s going on (this could just be me, as I have trouble connecting with omniscient narrators in general). It’s too detached from the situation to make me worry about her, and because it’s retrospective, I know this all happened already and she survived.

I know the sister dies, but since I don’t know her or anything about the story, I don’t have an emotional connection to her. I don’t hey know the woman here, and I’m not ever sure what her name is, so I’m not worried about her at all.

It feels like setup to me, explaining a situation and how something happened, but it isn’t making me want to read on to know what happens next.

The original was in first person, which I liked, but since it wasn't the protagonist I suggested you change it to third person. But I did like the closeness of first person better, and I connected more, so perhaps pull closer again and do a tighter third person? That would maintain the distance to show this isn't the protagonist, but also keep that more personal sense to help readers care more. (Or it could just be me, so if others love this listen to them).

(Here’s more on What Downton Abbey Can Teach us About Tension)

4. What is your overall impression?

It has some nice imagery and a wistful tone, which fits the literary genre well. It sounds as though the woman has had a hard life, yet she’s still trying to bring life to the world (through trees and a child). She strikes me as a good person who’s about to lose hope.

(Here’s more on How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes)

Overall, aside from one or two tweaks, it reads well and there are no technical issues. But I’m not yet seeing what this prologue is offering readers to entice them to read on. In a literary novel, the word picture it paints might be enough, and set the tone for the story. Since this isn’t a genre I read, I can’t say for sure (Ken and Maria? Your thoughts?). I’d run this past some literary readers and see what they say. But I was drawn in more by the original than this one, though I think if you pulled in the narrative distance a bit closer, it would hit it just right. I think it just swung too far out when it shifted to third person omniscient instead of a tighter third.

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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5 comments:

  1. This has vivid description, themes of death and motherhood and history, and it has multiple layers of images and events (this isn't even the protagonist!) that force the reader to slow down and take them in at their own pace.

    In any other genre you'd get advice on just how many of these flourishes to move to later or just remove them, so the story could become clearer sooner and the style could play off of it. But in literary fiction like this, the "flourishes" *are* the story, along with being true to your themes.

    The only suggestion I can make is, look at the authors you like, and keep count of a few things. How many phrases (or whole separate subjects) do they have in a sentence, and how many of those do they use in a paragraph to build a rhythm? Is it common to have two full similes in their first paragraph like you do, or is that rare, or do most have an opening paragraph three times your size? Do they maintain an image or theme through a page or a scene?

    Of course this is a very crude, mechanical way to study a genre that's this delicate. You could easily decide it has nothing to tell you about how to build a story. But you might find that the moments you like best do involve a longer or a shorter thread of things, or they only come from referring back to an image, or some other secret you might find in the weeds.

    And of course, show this to literary fiction readers. Especially, I'd suggest showing some of them just a page here or there: you want opinions on the story as a whole, but you also want as many snapshots as you can get of just how the style works. You'll get a huge range of views, some of them arbitrary or or random, but you'll get some gems and a few patterns too.

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    1. Ken, thank you so much for your terrific feedback which indeed gave me a couple of 'Aha' moments.
      I always had difficulty finding the right genre for my novel, It doesn't fit into any of the more popular genres such as mystery, fantasy, horror, crime, etc. so I casually lumped it with commercial or mainstream. Never for one moment did I think it fitted into Literary Fiction but after reading your and Janice's comments, I realize that Literary Fiction is what I mostly read and love and as such, enjoy writing.

      That was my first "Aha" moment!

      The second came with your astute observation of the theme about death, motherhood and history. That is precisely what the story is about; ordinary people struggling to live a normal life in a land fraught with the constant threat of war and terrorism. I hadn't pinpointed the theme as such and it's interesting - and somewhat satisfying! - that you picked up on that from the few opening paragraphs. Thanks again, Ken.

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  2. On this material, I was, unfortunately, tripped up in the very first sentence in what seemed to be a needless conflict. Love the beginning, really love the brutal bit about the sister. In those few seconds, I was prepared for utter pathos. And then, there came the conflict.

    Let me explain myself: we have 'crumbled', meaning something solid broke apart, and then we have chaff, the lightweight husks protecting the heavier grain/seeds.

    I love the idea of a dream of peace being a belief so strong that it becomes a thing of near physical substance. In this case, it has been bashed about for a long time, perhaps a life time, and finally, there comes a blow so stupendous, the dream crumbles to unrecognizable bits.

    With this beginning, and the author, clearly wanting to extend the feeling of grief over this loss (along with the still-tingling idea of the sister being slaughtered that day), switches from crumbled granite of an idea (my impression) to chaff blowing before a wind.

    I was unable to make the transition from solid to air-borne, using chaff... At this point, I'd suggest leaving this last bit out, or finding a way to turn the crumbled dream to dust.

    I also did not expect the crumbled dream to take precedence over her sister's death. I expected the next sentence to speak to that loss, to bring me deeper into her mindset of awful grief.

    Introducing the inability to coexist with neighbors brought the ideas of trust and threat to mind, and my eager mind leapt to envision that her neighbors had either murdered her sister or had a hand in bringing about the killing (betrayal). The use of 'slaughter' also made me feel the killing might have been public or committed by an enraged/righteous group or mob mentality.

    Again, the soft simile at the end of the sentence threw me and created endless questions. Did this mean that she wasn't part of the local 'tribe'? Was her sister's death part of that vulnerability? Their 'differences' finally resulting in the death of her sister? Is this her dream of peace?

    As the 'virgin' reader, my mind is chomping at the bit to get involved with the material, so if you don't fill in the tidbits that lock me into the environment, the culture, the background, the people, etc. I will merrily scamper around creating my own 'filler', which is probably incorrect.

    It was jarring to me to encounter the 'previous afternoon' and wondered if this meant the day before March 25th.

    And from there, I read on with the assumption that, apparently, I would be forced to take on a fairly heavy load of backstory to get answers to the provocative opening.

    Without overstaying my welcome, I will note that even in literary works, we need to temper what is presented in a Prologue and be very conscious of what the Prologue is accomplishing, in terms of the main book.

    From a developmental view, I feel the structure isn't quite right. Perhaps the reason for her longing for peace and co-existence with neighbors can be brought out first, her struggle to create and maintain this situation. The obstacles to accomplishing that dream. The moments or events that led to feeling more secure. All to lead up to the previous afternoon. The possible miscarriage. Then transition to the fateful day, glimpses of horror or extremes. A stark tone, black-and-white, bitter truths. Ending with the sentence about her 'cherished most desire'.

    Good luck and thanks for your excellent efforts!






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  3. The entire passage was enticing for me. The imagery put me right in the mood to continue. I got the feeling that Hava is a person who is practical, level-headed, and keeps her feelings close.

    Janice may be right about changing that first sentence into just a subtitle but I really do like that sentence. It defines your style as the author.

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  4. Thank you for your encouraging comments. Happy you picked up on Hava's solid attributes. That is indeed how she is :)

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