From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 5

Real Life Diagnostics: How Is the Pacing in This Scene?

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 October 19.

This week’s question:

How is the pacing in this segment?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Flopping to the old train track rug on his floor, Jinx stares at the ceiling for long minutes. The bong-bong-bong of Aunt Lena’s grandfather clock stirs Jinx from his funk. “I’ve gotta decide what to do before Marta gets home and barges in here.”

Jinx starts pacing the rug’s faded train track loop. “I can wear filthy, smelly, probably diseased socks to go find dinosaurs.” He stops walking. “Or, I spare myself deadly botu-lepsy-itis by wearing my own socks and going…” His shoulders sag. “…exactly nowhere.”

Jinx crouches next to Shiny Box. The golden ‘Time-Less Toe Covers for Time Travel’ inscription glows and fades in rhythm with the box’s odd tune. Mindlessly rubbing in a dollop of hand sanitizer, Jinx eyes the glittering letters. Then he picks up the photo of his parents from his bedside table. He glares at their weathered, happy faces and says, “You leave Marta and I – again. To go off…to wherever it is you go…” He sighs then gnaws his lower lip until… a slow grin slides across his face. “Clearly,” he adds, “leaving is a family tradition.”

Seconds later, Jinx’s grin flatlines. “But we can’t all be gone. What if I’m in the Mesozoic and Marta gets sick again?”

Jinx sets down the silent photo. He eyes the art on his walls. Diplodocus, T-Rex, and velociraptor prints. He scowls at the clutch of heroes in his favorite Jurassic movie posters. And he blows some pretty hostile raspberries at the signed photo of real paleontologists his parents gave him last year. “Quit glaring at me,” he says to the pantheon of beasts and experts. “I know what to choose.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Flopping to the old train track rug [what does this mean? I’m confused, so perhaps prior text explains it?] on his floor [rugs are assumed to be on the floor], Jinx stares at the ceiling for long minutes. [my mind inserts ‘until’ here] The bong-bong-bong of Aunt Lena’s grandfather clock stirs Jinx [him] from his funk. “I’ve gotta decide what to do before Marta gets home and barges in here.” [Is this spoken dialogue or internal thought?]

Jinx starts paces the rug’s faded train track loop. [the re-focus on the rug gives the impression that the rug is important or will be] “I can wear filthy, smelly, probably diseased socks to go find dinosaurs.” [again, is he talking aloud?] He stops walking. [oddly stiff stage direction.] “Or, I can spare myself deadly botu-lepsy-itis by wearing my own socks and going…” His shoulders sag. “…exactly nowhere.”

Jinx crouches next to Shiny Box. [this is the name he’s given the magic box?] The golden ‘Time-Less Toe Covers for Time Travel’ inscription [I wondered where the inscription is on the box] glows and fades in rhythm with the box’s odd tune. Mindlessly [establish obsession through patterned repetition of action, not telling – leave this out, it works fine] rubbing in a dollop of hand sanitizer, Jinx eyes the glittering letters. Then he picks up the photo of his parents from his bedside table. [so, he’s crouching next to the table?] [these two sentences can also be combined with ‘and’, removing ‘He’] He glares [shows me he’s angry/antagonistic] at their weathered, [odd descriptor, I see ultra-tanned or very old] happy faces. and says, [tag not necessary] “You leave Marta and I – again. To go off…to wherever it is you go…” He sighs then gnaws his lower lip until a slow grin slides across his face. “Clearly,” he adds, [not necessary] “leaving is a family tradition.”

Seconds later, Jinx’s grin flatlines. [will MG readers ‘get’ this reference?] “But we can’t all be gone. What if I’m in the Mesozoic and Marta gets sick again?”

Jinx sets down the silent [do photos have audio in this story?] photo. He eyes the art on his walls. Diplodocus, T-Rex, and velociraptor prints. He scowls at the clutch of heroes [I wonder why he does this] in his favorite Jurassic movie posters. And he blows some pretty hostile [this seems more a judgement of the raspberry blowing than a description] raspberries at the signed photo of real paleontologists his parents gave him last year. “Quit glaring [2nd use of this – perhaps ‘staring’ instead?] at me,” he says to the pantheon of beasts and experts. “I know what to choose.”

The Question:

1. How is the pacing in this segment?

[Readers chime in please!]

Your notes indicate a concern with showing Jinx’s indecision: to wear or not to wear the time-travel socks of repulsion, while ensuring there is sufficient background to frame his challenge in this decision, as well as exposing more of his personality.

Let’s consider things from top to bottom through this snippet…

First paragraph: Jinx flops, stares at the ceiling, the clock bongs, he proclaims the need to make a decision before his sister comes home. Without knowing the story thus far, I don’t have much that shows me his tension. (prior story shows him finding the magic time travel box, which he sneaks to his room, opens, and discovers magic socks that are gross beyond words – and he hates germs)

The quote marks force me to assume Jinx is speaking aloud wherever this use occurs, and also makes me think that he must be alone in the house (but I believe the Aunt is there, correct?).

The distant POV forces readers into a ‘story-teller’ position, as in reading a book to a child, where small bits of info are portioned out so as to ensure they have a clear understanding of what is happening.

This distant POV can still allow me to get close to Jinx and be entertained by his adventures though, if his facial expressions and reactions are incorporated into the progression of the story. For example, I am told the clock bonging stirs Jinx from his ‘funk’, but I didn’t know he was in a funk. He flops onto his rug, but this doesn’t show ‘funk’ to me. I would like to see tapping his toes, knocking knees, drumming the floor with fingers, heaving sighs, covering his eyes with his hands, squeezing his face, etc, etc. As it is, I have a kid on the floor, staring…

(Here's more on How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

And if the magic Box is in the room with him, I might expect him either look at it or avoid doing so. After all, seemingly it’s where all the ‘evil’ is coming from.

In the second paragraph, Jinx is up and pacing, and the train track rug’s second mention makes me think it’s a special object. His pacing shows anxiety or frustration, but if we saw him glancing at the Box, the object of his frustration, again and again (or each time he circled the rug), we would feel his tension rising. We would understand the potential twitchiness of having the magic thing right there – waiting for him to make a decision.

(Here's more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

The stage direction: ‘He stops walking’ is a bit stiff, but also conflicts with ‘pacing’ – moving in a confined space. He’s a kid, right? Not a robot. Perhaps we can find a way to have him pause that is in line with a kid’s movements. He could even trip on the infamous rug!

(Here's more on Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

He’s now defining the decision: to sock or not to sock, and feeling a bit defeated (sagging shoulders), and we wonder how deep that defeat might go. The way this part of the scene is handled allows the beginnings of understanding that this is more than just an amazing magic thing. This may be the first critical thinking Jinx has ever faced.

In the third paragraph, Jinx crouches near the Box, eyeing the gold inscription. We aren’t shown where the Box is but crouching infers it is on the floor. However, previous material may show exactly where it’s located.

Suddenly, Jinx has hand sanitizer. Apparently, a supply is kept within reach, no matter where he is. I assumed this action was written to reinforce the idea of Jinx and germ phobia, but I don’t know how often it’s been introduced previously, or to what extent you set it up. Using ‘mindlessly’ tells the reader something that shouldn’t need to be told. I suggest leaving it out and simply letting the thing happen. If it happens often enough, readers will figure out it’s an unconscious action, like scratching an itch.

(Here's more on Running on Autopilot: Working With Unconscious Goals)

We next encounter the photo of his parents, and I scoot him, the Box and the table closer together. I like the last part of the paragraph, as it shows some of Jinx’s personality – plus, the last line is great, even if it does feel like something a 35-year-old dude private eye might say with sly wit – an inside joke. Never-the-less, it’s a rueful ending that foreshadows a decision already made.

This paragraph also sets up the background of absent parents and some bitterness – perhaps the icky magic socks are the first time Jinx is faced with the opportunity for independent action?

The final paragraph has Jinx showing disrespect to heroes and experts but am unsure why. What he feels their expectations are is missing – or what he thinks their judgement of him is… This feels like I should be gleaning some kind of subtext in all this, but I haven’t a clue what the message might be.

(Here's more on What Are You Really Saying? (The Use of Subtext))

This material covers a scene where the character faces a dilemma filled with obstacles. The magic is ‘specially toxic to him. He doesn’t want to leave his sister unprotected and alone. Parents, heroes and experts aren’t available for advice. His desire to turn his passion into reality could hold significant consequences.

The impression is that subconsciously, he has made a decision, but he hasn’t worked out all the arguments to support that decision.

(Here's more on The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

I don’t know if this character is driven by emotion or mind, whether he’s a scientist-dissociative type or an intuitive-kinetic type, but in this material, I don’t get enough clues to figure that out.

There are points where I become aware of the author due to the vocabulary, phrasing or perspective used, and other times due to a sense of judgement being assigned.

You did a good job of incorporating background and personality cues that help the reader know more about Jinx and the ‘why’ of him. I would want to see a bit more that explains his negative reactions to the experts and his heroes.

Overall, your pacing works, if you mean as far as laying groundwork for why Jinx eventually does what he does. I would add that if you can compromise a bit on the stiff statement sentences, add some transitions that sustain the flow, and bring in some clues that remind us he’s a kid, you’ll have a richer text that also helps guide young readers’ imaginations.

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

1 comment:

  1. I love Maria's breakdown of how the action and focus could move through this scene. It's important, because Jinx's thoughts seem to change so quickly -- it seems that way partly because this section hasn't shown us the things that are on his mind (like Marta getting sick before), but it would also help to show him mostly concerned about one or two things at a time until something he sees makes him stop and consider that too.

    My main thought here is the language and tone. I don't write middle grade, but many of these lines struck me as younger than that, while others seem a bit older. Writing for an age really has no shortcuts: you want to study books for that year (and actual children, but especially what works in a book) and learn how to consistently fit what that year needs.

    ReplyDelete