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Saturday, August 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Contemporary Women’s Fiction?

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: Zero

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

This week’s questions:

1. Is the protagonist likable? Is she sympathetic?

2. Does her personality come through? Does she have a clear voice?

3. Is the revelation of her skin condition too blunt? Too out-of-the-blue? Should it be posed in a different way?

4. Does the use of fictional brand names clash with using real ones? Is there a rule or a danger to using brand names?

5. Does this work for the first 250 words? Would you read on?

6. Is there anything that stands out negatively to you? Is there anything that can be improved?

Market/Genre: Contemporary Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

It's not a stretch to say I rule the runway. And this runway—the one I'm sashaying on for the Betty Jones Spring collection—is no exception.

Sure, Outriggers Mall is fifty-or-so miles away from the epicenter of New York City. But still, it is fashion week. Why does it matter if there aren’t any high-powered editors, buyers, and celebrities in the audience? Middle-aged women who dare to match denim-on-denim appreciate fine fashion too.

Hands on my hips, I continue strutting to the background pop song. Even though I’ve locked my gaze on a distant Cinnabon, my senses tingle. Like the change in the air before a storm, there’s a shift in the crowd’s curiosity that’s subtle, but unmistakable.

Do they stare because the poppy-inspired dress I'm rocking is brilliantly pleated to resemble petals?

Unlikely. I get the same vibe outside the runway often enough to know. They’re not fascinated by my clothes. They’re fascinated by me—or rather, the part of me that's…how should I put it? Different? Strange? Ugly…

Hm. My shoulders have wilted. But, no matter. One quick breath and I’ve straightened again. I'm not worried. My pretty face makes up for the rest of my body. The agency told me so when I got signed at seventeen—before I left The Buckeye State for the Big Apple, before modelling bootcamp taught me how to walk in heels, before a skin condition turned white patches on my chest into splotches all over my brown body.

All over except for my face.

It’s the only reason the agency hasn’t dropped me.

My Thoughts in Blue:

It's not a stretch to say I rule the runway. And this runway—the one I'm sashaying on for the Betty Jones Spring collection—is no exception.

[Sure, Outriggers Mall is fifty-or-so miles away from the epicenter of New York City. But still, it is fashion week.] I like the dichotomy between ruling the runway and not being at the heart of NY Fashion.  Why does it matter if there aren’t any high-powered editors, buyers, and celebrities in the audience? [Middle-aged women who dare to match denim-on-denim appreciate fine fashion too.] The fact that she’s okay with doing her job well even though it’s not at the top makes her likable

Hands on my hips, I continue strutting to the background pop song. Even though I’ve locked my gaze on a distant [Cinnabon,] I can smell this word my senses tingle. [Like the change in the air before a storm, there’s a shift in the crowd’s curiosity that’s subtle, but unmistakable.] This makes me wonder how she “rules the runway” and what people are noticing 

Do they stare because the [poppy-inspired dress I'm rocking is brilliantly pleated to resemble petals?] Nice details to set the scene

Unlikely. I get the same vibe outside the runway often enough to know. They’re not fascinated by my clothes. They’re [fascinated] intriguing word by me—or rather, the part of me that's…[how should I put it? Different? Strange? Ugly…] interesting. I'm very curious now

Hm. [My shoulders have wilted. But, no matter. One quick breath and I’ve straightened again.] I like how this shows her personality.  I'm not worried. [My pretty face makes up for the rest of my body.] Intrigued even more now. I wonder what makes her different The agency told me so when I got signed at seventeen—before I left The Buckeye State for the Big Apple, before modelling bootcamp taught me how to walk in heels, before a [skin condition turned white patches on my chest into splotches all over my brown body.] Good impact with the reveal

[All over except for my face.] Shows why she’s been conflicted about things thus far

[It’s the only reason the agency hasn’t dropped me.] Nice sense of potential stakes or conflict. Makes me worry she's about to face this

The Questions:

1. Is the protagonist likable? Is she sympathetic?

Yes (readers chime in here). I really liked her obvious love of the runway and fashion, and how she enjoys it even if she’s not in the hottest show in town. She knows she’s different, and appreciates what it earns her, but at the same time is a little uncomfortable about it as well. The conflict there makes her relatable and likable, and I feel for her. Her job is about having people look at her, yet she has a condition that causes people to stare, and I imagine that would be a difficult situation to reconcile.

(Here’s more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

2. Does her personality come through? Does she have a clear voice?

Yes. I get the sense of a determined young woman who is pursuing what she loves, using whatever skills and talent she has, but is also aware that her dream might be on borrowed time. She wants to enjoy it while she has it, though I suspect it’s starting to get harder to do that, and she’s worried about her future. Even though she says she’s not worried.

(Here’s more on How to Find Your Character's Voice)

3. Is the revelation of her skin condition too blunt? Too out-of-the-blue? Should it be posed in a different way?

I thought it was perfect (readers chime in). You dropped just enough hints that something wasn’t what we expected to pique curiosity and make us want to know, then hit us with the truth. It was unexpected, and created a good visual that changed what I was picturing in my mind.

You already had me imagining the dress with the petals (loved the vivid image of that), and my brain easily shifted to rework that image to the protagonist’s appearance within that dress. And then to follow it up with the comment about her face and why she still had a job really establishes the stakes and fears for the protagonist.

(Here’s more on Planting the Clues and Hints in Your Story)

4. Does the use of fictional brand names clash with using real ones? Is there a rule or a danger to using brand names?

Didn’t bother me at all. You can use them in fiction, though many advise caution with how you use them. You might run into issues if you’re using them in a negative way that could impact the brand in any way. You can also date your story if you use something “popular” and by the time the book is out that fad is long gone (this happens more in MG/YA though).

If you use things that have been around forever and aren’t likely to vanish any time soon, you’re probably fine. You used Cinnabon here, which has been a staple in malls for decades. It triggers a ton of memories for most readers (the smell, mmmm), and adds to the realism of being in a mall. I can’t think of a more perfect detail that says “mall,” actually.

(Here’s more on the legalities of using brand names in fiction) 

5. Does this work for the first 250 words? Would you read on?

Yes. I enjoyed it, I want to know what happens next, and I like the protagonist.

6. Is there anything that stands out negatively to you? Is there anything that can be improved?

I’m good. Nothing really jumps out at me.

Overall, I enjoyed this and would read on. It has an interesting and likable protagonist, an interesting world I’m unfamiliar with, and enough inherent conflict and potential in this first page to make me want to know what happens to this woman. Are the patches going to appear on her face soon? Is she going to face losing her job and even sense of self? I want to know.

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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4 comments:

  1. I too enjoyed this opening. Well written with the right touch of humor. One thing it brought to mind is I've seen this skin condition on a contestant on (I think it was) America's Next Top Model. The white patches were also on her face. They loved the fact she was so "different" and she made it pretty far up the chain. I would imagine she is a popular model now for magazines and/or runways.
    This made me think that perhaps there would be more impact if your character also had her face affected. It didn't stop the "real life" person from pursuing her goals and could certainly present more of a character arc for the story. Also, if the patches were only on her body, she could easily select clothes that hid or diminished the condition, such as slacks, longer sleeves or flounce sleeves, higher necklines, you get the drift.
    I'm sure you have your reason for not including her face, but I thought I would throw that out for your consideration.

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  2. Glamor in an approachable form, sass, "I'm not worried," and thoughts about what beauty and expectations really are... there's so much to like here.

    My main thought is that if the setting weren't so exciting, we'd be wishing the plot and the character didn't take several paragraphs to make themselves clear. This certainly holds our interest and doesn't make us wait long, but it could be even more on point from the first words.

    I love the moment where her "shoulders have wilted" (superb word, by the way, even if she weren't in a flowered dress). It's a hint of my favorite rule for any scene and especially for opening scenes, that you aren't quite using here: what does she *want* right now, what is she *doing* or planning in this exact moment to make it happen?

    I'd like to see the whole flow of this be focused on her performance. Show her concentration on projecting the image she wants, the little tricks in how she walks and moves, the signs around her that feed her confidence and sometimes adjust or threaten her plans. That's what a committed performer would be feeling (on a good day), and it would make even the first line hypnotic.

    "Out there in the spotlight you're a million miles away, every ounce of energy you've got to give away, as the sweat pours down your body like the music that you play..." --Bob Seger, "Turn The Page"

    If she's that focused, everything else can be worked in easily: it's all part of what she's playing off of, or pulling at her concentration just for a moment but no more if she can help it. And it would mean she could spot the first hint of reaction to her condition right at the start, and you could play with it the same way suspense writers build a hint of threat from the first creak of a floorboard, until you're ready to reveal it.

    As it is, you put a number of powerful elements in the story quickly... but for several paragraphs she's more musing about her exciting world than showing us what matters most *right this instant* and how that will lead the reader into the rest. You do everything else so well, I'd love to see you bring that power to the story too.

    One more thing: can you work in her name quickly? Not hearing it is a barrier to how quickly we're starting to know this lady.

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  3. What Ken said - what's her name, and can we get to the reveal more quickly? I was starting to wilt in that second paragraph (although it's 11pm, which could have something to do with my wilting feeling).

    But I read on, and by the end of that sample I'm definitely hooked. Well done.

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  4. This is SOOOO good! Well-done, indeed. I like the character, and your descriptions are spot-on. Seems like there is a trend now in the fashion industry to use models that are less-than-perfect. I've seen photos of models with the skin condition you describe, and on their faces, too. I've seen models with big ears and with huge gaps between their teeth. Some with disabilities such as Down Syndrome walk the runway, and there are others with prosthetic arms or legs. I am grateful for such diversity and acceptance in a field that used to be intimidating to women who did not meet certain beauty standards. Woman everywhere are thankful that perfection is not a standard for their faces or bodies. For those reasons, I think your theme is perfect for today, and you are off to a great start. I would love to read more, and I wish you much success with this work.

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