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Sunday, February 16

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Short Story Opening

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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines

Submissions currently in the queue: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through March 14.

This week’s questions:

1. Do my changes work?

2. Are you pulled into the story?

3. Is my use of stylized language subtle enough that it adds to the quality of voice, or is it too distracting?

Market/Genre: Short Story

Note: This is a revised opening from 2015. Here’s the original if you’d like to see how this writer revised. 

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

I knew better than to answer a call from work today. I just figured it was innocent enough. For sure it’d be one of the guys wanting to wish me well. My oldest pal at the station already tried me once this morning at the crack ‘a dawn. I rolled over in bed then and let the machine get it.

Beep: “Hey Lenny, it’s Frank. A word of advice for the big day; try not trip when you’re walking your little girl down the aisle, alright? I’m kidding, you fat bastard. Congrats. Have a great time and send Maria my best.”

An hour later I was outta bed and sorting through overdue bills in the kitchen when the phone rang again. I checked caller ID and picked up the receiver without thinking, ready to bust balls.

But I got it wrong. This time it wasn’t any 'a my buddies calling.

It was duty.

Fire alarms blared the message loud and clear throughout the building; the Dakota was in full evac mode. Everybody, get the hell out.

I was doing my best to comply, but the old lady I carried in my arms was slowing me down.

“Got any daughters?” I asked her as we hustled down a flight of steps in the stairwell.

She shook her head against my chest, and that, my friends, was a good sign. She’d been slipping in and outta consciousness ever since I found her lying on the floor of a fourth floor apartment. Making small talk was the best way to keep her alert.

We took another turn in the stairwell and the ole’ bird jangled like a bag ‘a bones as I tackled the next set of stairs. I coughed and hocked a loogie that tasted like charcoal. Smoke inhalation. But this woman had it much worse than me. Damn, she was starting to feel heavy. I shrugged her into a higher holding position. My guess? She mighta weighed a hundred pounds sopping wet. No problem for a fireman in his prime. But that ain’t me. I got twenty-five years on the job. My arms ached and quivered wit’ strain.

Four flights down, four to go.

“So no girls, eh? Count yourself lucky.” I said between heavy breaths. “Nothing but trouble, if you ask me. But they say you gotta let ‘em make their own mistakes.”

The lady brought the pearls in her hand closer to her heart, clutching them so tightly now that her bony knuckles went white. She wasn’t wearing the necklace, mind you. She was holding onto it. Same as when I found her sprawled beneath an open wall safe in her bedroom. Crazy bat musta gone back for the treasure during the evac. Lucky for her I was on final sweep for residents.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[I knew better than to answer a call from work today. I just figured it was innocent enough. For sure it’d be one of the guys wanting to wish me well. My oldest pal at the station already tried me once this morning at the crack ‘a dawn. I rolled over in bed then and let the machine get it.

Beep: “Hey Lenny, it’s Frank. A word of advice for the big day; try not trip when you’re walking your little girl down the aisle, alright? I’m kidding, you fat bastard. Congrats. Have a great time and send Maria my best.”

An hour later I was outta bed and sorting through overdue bills in the kitchen when the phone rang again. I checked caller ID and picked up the receiver without thinking, ready to bust balls.

But I got it wrong. This time it wasn’t any 'a my buddies calling.

It was duty.] I don’t think you need any of this. It’s explaining the background situation, but isn’t getting to the story yet. There’s nothing to draw readers in.

[Fire alarms blared the message loud and clear throughout the building; the Dakota was in full evac mode. Everybody, get the hell out.] This feels more like your opening line. You might consider another clue to show what the Dakota is, such as “get the hell out of the building” (If it is indeed a building)

[I was doing my best [to comply,] is this a phrase a blue-collar man would use? but the old lady I carried in my arms was slowing me down.] Perhaps move this to the previous paragraph so it’s clear that’s the narrator’s thoughts. It also puts the POV right up front. I'm also a little worried about "slowing me down." It almost sounds mean, like he'd drop her if he had to.

“Got any daughters?” I asked her as we hustled down a flight of steps in the stairwell.

She shook her head against my chest, and that, my friends, was a good sign. She’d been slipping in and outta consciousness ever since I found her lying on the floor of a fourth floor apartment. [Making small talk was the best way to keep her alert.] Could cut and just show this by him talking to her.

We took another turn in the stairwell and the [ole’ bird] This made me think he was British. Is he? jangled like a bag ‘a bones as I tackled the next set of stairs. I coughed and [hocked a loogie] might be a bit much that tasted like charcoal. Smoke inhalation. But this woman had it much worse than me.

Perhaps start this paragraph here Damn, she was [starting to feel heavy.] perhaps tighten this up? “Getting heavy” I shrugged her into a higher holding position. My guess? She mighta weighed a hundred pounds sopping wet. No problem for a fireman in his prime[. But] , but that ain’t me. I got twenty-five years on the job. My arms ached and quivered [wit’ strain.] don’t need

Four flights down, four to go.

“So no girls, eh? Count yourself lucky[.] comma” I said between heavy breaths. [“Nothing but trouble, if you ask me. But they say you gotta let ‘em make their own mistakes.”] Perhaps change this to the wedding detail? It sounds like he doesn’t really like his daughter or is critical of her.

The lady brought the pearls in her hand closer to her heart, clutching them so tightly now that her bony knuckles [went white.] can he see this in the smoke? She wasn’t wearing the necklace, mind you. She was holding onto it. Same as when I found her sprawled beneath an open wall safe in her bedroom. [Crazy bat] this might be too harsh and make him unlikable musta gone back for the treasure during the evac. Lucky for her I was on final sweep for residents.

The Questions:

1. Do my changes work?

Mostly (readers chime in here). The switch to first person makes this more personal, and you introduce a problem and a character readers can care about right away—can Lenny get this woman out of the fire before they both perish? The fact that it’s on Lenny’s daughter’s wedding day increases the stakes for him. He wants to see his child get married.

The first few paragraphs aren’t working for me, though. They’re setup and backstory that explain the situation before readers get to the fire, and there’s nothing there to hook readers to want to read on. I’d suggest cutting them and getting right to the fire.

(Here’s more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

2. Are you pulled into the story?

Once I get to the fire, yes. I want to see if Lenny makes it out with the woman. How hooked I’ll be after that though, is iffy, because there’s no hint of conflict past the fire in the story. So essentially, you’ll be starting over again once Lenny and the woman are safe.

But based on comments in your submission email, you do have conflict brewing you can insert to keep the tension high at the end of this scene. Lenny isn’t thrilled with the man his daughter is marrying. You drop a teeny hint about that with his dialogue, but it doesn’t come across as him having an issue with his future son-in-law. It sounds more like he as an issue with his daughter, or women in general since he says some not-kind things about the woman he’s saving. This makes Lenny less than likable, despite him rescuing someone from a fire.

I’d suggest having him talk to the woman about the wedding and how he doesn’t like the groom. He’s trying to keep her talking to help her, and this is something on his mind, so it will feel natural to the story (and keep him likable). It would also allow you to show all the wedding and conflict details within the action sequence, so when the fire is over, readers are already wondering about the wedding and can see where the story is going.

Readers might also worry that he won’t make it to the wedding if they know it’s that day. Perhaps Lenny doesn’t want to go if he thinks she’s making a huge mistake. Maybe he’ll use the fire as an excuse.

Unlike a novel, a short story has to pack a lot into fewer words, so look for ways for your story elements to do more than one thing. For example, letting the conversation to keep the woman conscious and talking is about something that matters to and sets up the main conflict of the story.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

3. Is my use of stylized language subtle enough that it adds to the quality of voice, or is it too distracting?

Bits of it are good, but there were a few spots that felt a little too much to me. Some of it also felt callous to me, not blue collar. I can understand his frustration with someone who would risk their life for material goods (and I suspect that fits your theme of class values), but perhaps find a phrase besides “crazy bat” to show that. Readers have no idea what this woman’s financial state is, and those pearls might be the only thing of value she has, and they have tremendous sentimental value. Lenny making fun of her for it feels mean. But he can observe how people value things over life and maybe even connect that to the groom in some way to further link these two story elements.

(Here’s more on Dialect in Dialogue: A Little Goes a Long Way)

Overall, I think with some trimming, this is off to a good start, and it wouldn’t be hard at all to re-position the details into this opening so it flows into the meat of the story.

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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7 comments:

  1. I agree, if you want to have the rescue near the opening it should be the very start. The words "an hour later" in the opening paragraphs can be a red flag that the story hadn't really started yet, and they often make readers all too aware of that.

    It seems like you opened with the wedding message to show that this story is about the contrast between his family drama and his firefighting job. If that's true, it's definitely best to start in the action and look for ways to make the wedding a clear undercurrent to it all. He could keep thinking "this'd be a lousy day to die on the job" or use the details of that call (which are fun enough to keep) as part of his chatter to the old woman.

    Or for that matter, physical action isn't always the best way to start, no matter what Hollywood claims. If you think this would be clearer opening with a scene centered on the wedding, you could explore if you could make that quietly exciting in its own way -- and his job could be the undercurrent for *that*.

    It's too easy to assume each scene needs to be about one thing. Good scenes usually have different levels going on and playing off each other, and that becomes even more vital when you've got something as space-conscious as a short story. (Or an opening scene in any story.) Plus, like Janice said, starting with just the rescue can mean we don't connect with Lenny on any other grounds and we lose our interest in him once it's done -- unless we're also getting interested in the wedding.

    (My personal default for an opening scene is "two minutes before the explosion": when there's enough slack to see the characters in their own terms, but the crisis is either visibly in the air or going to trigger before the byplay slows down.)

    It's an interesting concept here: a blue-collar firefighter, with what seems to be issues about that wedding. These two threads deserve to be properly tangled together from the start, so we can see what breaks.

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  2. Yes, short stories are different animal. They require multi tasking elements. The purpose of the convo in the stairwell was for exposition about Lenny’s feelings toward the wedding, so I like your idea about elongating this dialogue and eliminating the intro.

    It looks as though the “crazy bat” comment has hit the mark, because showing callousness was my intention. I understand the risk of alienating the reader, but I think they’ll be on board in the next scene when he recovers a teddy bear from a damaged apartment for a distraught girl.

    Lenny’s animosity toward rich people serves as the major change in his character arc, and the pearls play a pivotal role in this regard. Unknowingly, Lenny has saved the groom’s grandmother. The necklace serves as a “something borrowed” gift for her on the wedding day. As it turns out, the pearls are imitation, completely worthless, yet due to sentimental reasons the elderly woman views them as priceless. This assists in changing Lenny’s stereotypical views on the wealthy.

    Thanks for all your help, Janice!

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  3. Thanks for your input, Ken. Your advice always is concise and insightful. I hadn’t even considered flipping the two main elements (firefighting and wedding). I’ll let my subconscious work on that for a bit and see if something evolves.

    Also, Janice, I see your point about Lenny’s apparent issue with his daughter. This was unintentional. I meant his comment more as tongue in cheek. Like girls are a handful for their fathers. I’ll revise dialogue to show concern for her about her marrying this guy. Maybe I’ll insert a comment about her being too good for this guy or something along those lines. Thanks.

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  4. Some quick thoughts...

    I connected the 'Dakota' with a Naval ship -- evacuation at sea.

    I would suggest cutting down the portion about carrying the woman downstairs, fewer references to how tired or out of shape he is, and instead show his dedication to getting her out alive -- wondering if the pearls were the last thing her long gone husband gave her perhaps.

    Firemen are all business and proud of their ability to push through. He can cough and spit, and taste the soot -- that's okay, the whole loogie thing is distracting.

    The reason I'd shorten the exit down the stairs to a very fast-pace, high tension race is so that he can exit the building, hand off the woman to medics (literally seconds in doing this), and head for his crew -- who then! give him crap about the wedding. He's filthy and sweaty, and full of adrenalin, so is ready to knock down any digs - but he's also already thinking about the time, when he has to be at the wedding (needs to scrub fire smell out of his hair), so catches a ride to the station with the assistant fire inspector, a younger guy, so he can save some time. The young guy listens to some grousing (silence or going 'chatty' is a reaction to adrenalin) about the wedding and the daughter in silence, then says 'Congrats' as the fireman exits the car, and gets the response: "They say you gotta let'em make their own mistakes..." then slams the car door shut.

    You will get this character to the same point, but via the cool down after the fire, which is more natural -- plus, you get to add some tension (the kind we hate in real life, so the reader relates) with the time crunch he now faces.

    You have a good starting idea that allows lots of fun opportunities to shape this character.

    oyes -- dialect? Please do check out Janice's articles on this, it can be a delicate thing to use. Plus, dialect goes with locale, not necessarily blue or white color work. Target job jargon if you want to put a stamp on a character...

    Good luck and thanks for letting us all get involved!

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  5. Maria, you nailed my next scene. This is exactly how I've written it. Lol. The guys are giving Lenny grief, mostly about joining the rich class by way of his new son-law. I give Lenny the task of retrieving a little girl's teddy bear to allow for some complaining about the groom to a fellow firefighter.

    It's interesting that both you and Janice had a hiccup with the definition of the Dakota. As written, the word "building" precedes "the Dakota, but you both missed it. This tells me I have a sentence structure issue. I think I'll switch the two around so readers get to Dakota first, wonder what it is, and immediately get the answer. So instead of:

    Fire alarms blared the message loud and clear throughout the building; the Dakota was in full evac mode.

    I'll change to:

    Fire alarms blared the message loud and clear throughout the Dakota; the building was in full evac mode.

    I could even add the adjective "apartment" to building to be more specific.

    Thanks for your input.

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    Replies
    1. I think the reason I missed the word building, is because it wasn't clear to me that it was part of the Dakota. The way it's phrased made me think they were two different things. The alarm was "in the building" and it was telling Lenny "the Dakota was in evac mode." The proper noun came second, so I thought it was something different. Switching it works for me and clarifies that.

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  6. Yup, I see your point. I might eliminate the proper noun here altogether, since I describe the building once Lenny is safely outside. The proper noun can be inserted at that time. Here, in the opening line, I can keep it generic and use "apartment complex" instead. Thanks for this feedback, it really helps.

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