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Saturday, March 28

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Prologue

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 4.

This week’s question:

Is this prologue working?

Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island

Autumn 1932

Nina steeled herself against unbidden goosebumps crawling over her skin.

Victor hurried onto the stoop and closed the door. “What are you doing here? If she sees you, she’ll kill you.” His face drained of color.

“I’m not afraid of her . . . or you.” Nina unfolded the letter in her pocket and handed it to him. “On the contrary. Your knees should quake at the sight of me!” Sprigs of white hair hung over his forehead. Since when did Victor wear suits? The tailored-fit of this one said no expense spared.

He scanned the letter wide-eyed and mouth gaping. His trembling hand shook the paper. “Did Nicholas send this to you?”

“Wrong question, Victor.” Nina stepped toward the door, but he blocked her path. She tipped her chin and sighed. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not the scared, pregnant girl I once was. I won’t let you send me away ever again.” She pinned him with her determination. “A very astute woman has a copy of this letter in her possession. She’s prepared to do whatever it takes, should anything untoward happen to me.”

Nina trusted Sarah Carpenter with every fiber of her being. She’d taken her in when no one else would. Her compassion and care transformed Nina from a common streetwalker to a virtuous, confident woman.

“And we both know what that will mean for you and dear, dear Morga.” She shifted her weight.

My Thoughts in Blue:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island

Autumn 1932

Nina [steeled herself against unbidden goosebumps] Something’s a bit off here—she prepared herself against goosebumps. But I suspect she’s really steeling herself for the confrontation to come crawling over her skin. I wanted a bit of internalization here to ground me in Nina’s POV and hint why she’s there.

Victor [hurried onto] This suggests more distance to me that simply stepping outside, but I think that’s the action here the stoop and closed the door. “What are you doing here? If she sees you, she’ll kill you.” [His face drained of color.] Perhaps put this first since this is his reaction to seeing her.

“I’m not afraid of her . . . or you.” Nina unfolded the letter in her pocket and handed it to him. “On the contrary. Your knees should quake at the sight of me!” Sprigs of white hair hung over his forehead. [Since when did Victor wear suits? The tailored-fit of this one said no expense spared.] I don’t see how his hair makes her wonder this. These two lines don’t seem to fit here. Perhaps move to when she first see him, as this might be an immediate repose to that.

He never responds to her threat. Would he? He scanned the letter wide-eyed and mouth gaping. [His trembling hand shook the paper.] A bit awkward and sounds as if the hand is working independently. Perhaps “His hand trembled?” [“Did Nicholas send this to you?”] Interesting that this is so specific a name, and not “Where did you get this?”

“Wrong question, Victor.” Nina [stepped toward the door,] Why? I get no sense of motive here but he blocked her path. She tipped her chin and sighed. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m not the scared, [pregnant girl] I see that you want to slip in this detail, but it doesn’t work in this particular sentence construction. Being pregnant isn’t something you get over like being scared I once was. I won’t let you [send me away] If she’s a streetwalker, would she really expect anything from her customers? Would she even know who the father of the child was? ever again.” She [pinned him with her determination.] Feels a bit off. How exactly do you pin someone with determination? “A very astute woman has a copy of this letter in her possession. She’s prepared to do whatever it takes, [should anything untoward happen to me.”] This is intriguing, as it suggests she’s in danger of some type, and probably due to Victor.

Nina trusted Sarah Carpenter with every fiber of her being. She’d taken her in when no one else would. [Her compassion and care transformed Nina from a common streetwalker to a virtuous, confident woman.] Feels a bit detached and told compared to the rest of the POV.
“And we both know what that will mean for you and dear, dear Morga.” She shifted her weight.

The Question:

1. Is this working?


Mostly (readers chime in). Nina obviously has a history with Victor, and I’m guessing, a child with him as well. That alone would be enough to blackmail/extort/threaten him, but apparently he has a bigger secret revealed in that letter. Something that would be worse for him than the discovery of his (I’m guessing) dalliance with a prostitute. Nina might be in danger, and she’s taking steps to protect herself. Or…she might be threatening him, and he’s the victim here. I’m not sure.

Since this is a prologue and from 1932, this is very likely in the past of the story and this is the setup to the true problem that begins in chapter one. I imagine this will jump ahead in time and perhaps follow Nina or even the child, and this situation and secret will be an important part of the story. An utter guess on my part, though.

If I’m guessing right, consider what this prologue does for your story. Will readers be more or less intrigued if they know this information going in? A common problem with prologues is that they often explain something about the story the author feels readers need to know, but knowing that information robs a lot of the tension and mystery from the story. I don’t know enough about this story to say if that’s the case here, but it’s something to be aware of.

(Here’s more on Pondering the Prologue: Keep it or Kill it?)

What I’m unclear on still, is what the danger is here. Is Nina worried that Victor is going to hurt her? She’s clearly there to threaten him, but I don’t really know why. She isn’t acting like someone who fears for her life, and she isn’t clear about why she’s there—aside from the “if anything happens to me you’ll pay” threat. I don’t get the sense that Victor means her harm. He sent her away before, and I imagine if he’d wanted to hurt her he’d have done it then to avoid any pregnancy scandal.

I start out on Nina’s side, but by the end I’m questioning everything, because I don’t have enough a sense that Nina is in the right here. She was a streetwalker. Getting pregnant is a risk of that profession, and I’m not sure she’d even know who the father of the child was, or expect Victor to take any responsibility for it. Instead of being the victim, Nina could be the aggressor here. I don’t think she is, but I don’t understand her motives, so it’s possible.

I’d suggest adding a little internalization to show her fear and motives for being there. I’d like to be in her head just a bit more to better understand her plan and goals and what’s actually going on.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

I also wanted just a touch more setting and description. I know they’re on a stoop, but that’s my only detail for the setting. I assume Victor has money from the suit line, but I’m just guessing. Is this stoop in a wealthy area? Is it daytime or night? Are there people about? Time of year? It doesn’t need a lot, and too much description would slow the story down, but I wanted some sensory details to ground me in the scene.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

From a technical standpoint, some of the word choices felt a bit off to me, which pulled me out of the narrative. I’d suggest reworking a few for clarity.

Overall, this has good bones to work with. There’s a conflict, even if it’s a bit murky at the moment, story questions to pique reader interest, and a sense of something about to happen. It also establishes a situation with potential trouble to someone in the future, if the story does indeed jump ahead in time. There’s a problem here that will have ramifications. I think with a little tweaking, this will smooth out nicely.

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. We have a conflict, that is good, and Nina seems like a tough character that will fight for herself. I think there is a need for a bit more internal thought from Nina and/or Victor, to situate the reader as to what is happening here. Good internal dialogue will allow the reader to "feel" the goosebumps rather than the author telling us they are there.

    I find myself writing exclamation marks only to delete them when revising. I've come to believe they should be used sparingly and that stronger dialog fills in the need for that punctation. That beings said, I think the sentence "On the contrary" will land stronger with just those words than following with the knees quaking.

    While very often we want to use descriptions that show fear, anxiousness, etc., they often land better when they are done quietly. When Victor scans the paper, there are other opportunities to build tension here without feeding it to the reader. Perhaps him clutching the paper in his hands, hanging his head or staring out the window.

    The paragraph with Sarah Carpenter feels telling and in another voice. This backstory might come in better through dialogue.

    Going back to the beginning, where Victor says "if she sees you, she'll kill you" - that denotes some sense of caring for Nina, and as well seems like they have had a history.
    From that, the line referring to Victor's suits provides an opportunity for past feelings to be weaved in here using internal dialogue.

    There are lots of good bones to this story, with intrigue, good characters and interesting timeline. A revision or two can shape this into a great beginning of a story readers won't want to put down. Good luck!

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  2. Wow, thank you Janice and Lynne for your very helpful critiques/wisdom! I'm excited to get this portion polished!!

    Janice, you're correct - the story moves forward from this point. I should've included that the genre is suspense, but I think you picked up on that!

    Many thanks for your help!! :)
    Blessings,
    Amre Cortadino :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, this is a solid conflict for a start. Choosing what moment to start a story in might be the hardest single task in any book, and you've got a promising one here. What's left here is how well you can present that promise.

    Since this is a prologue and set in the past, the reader absolutely assumes this is setup for the story's main events -- very possibly about Nina's child. This scene is a good start in showing that foundation: Nina has a sordid past and a pregnancy, she confronts Victor despite the risks, "Sarah" is an ally that'll be important later, and what they're both really afraid of is some "her" (likely "dear dear Morga").

    So, think carefully what the most exciting, unique facts are about their situation, that promise to form the story ahead. You're on track for presenting those well, but not yet with as much clarity and laser-like focus as you want. It's a tricky balancing act: how can you grab the reader by the throat with what's going to matter, but arrange it in stages so there's suspense for each reveal, and show how each fact would naturally come up in the flow of things. Plus knowing what background to include so that the reader doesn't take a thrilling fact in the wrong way.

    Here's what I'd like to assume is going on:

    Nina is an ex-prostitute -- but she'd already started to clean up her life when Victor got her pregnant. (So you might want to just call her street trash rather than a streetwalker, until there's time to show the stages of her life.) She left her child and some arrangements with Sarah while she came to fight for the child's rights, or maybe to stop some other scheme of Morga's. And I wouldn't be surprised if Morga kills her anyway, and the story is the child (with some help from Sarah) trying to put things right.

    If that's the plan, look hard at how you can build suspense through those things. Let her think right away that she's doing it for her child, or make that the thread that builds to a reveal about it. (Right now you only say "scared, pregnant" -- you don't confirm the child survived, or even that she isn't just bolder and still pregnant now.) Use the idea of Morga and other dangers to keep us on edge: maybe the scariest finale of the scene would be if Nina sets up a perfect blackmail and Morga just kills her anyway out of sheer arrogance. (Or Victor kills her, to save her from Morga...) Or they might defeat her in other ways, or surrender but with a sign that they'll get her later. Consider what else is going on and how that plays off it; I guess Victor's suit is a sign that Morga or something is pulling him into society now, and that raises the stakes. And, I'm guessing Nina is meant to be sympathetic but desperate, only a little shady, and she's stooping to blackmail because she's up against something much worse.

    I may be way off base with what this is meant to do, since of course we only have the start of the scene. But, this scene's strength is what the conflict here implies about the story to come. All the rest is how fully you can refine it to that purpose.

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  4. Hi Ken. Thank you for your comments! To be purposefully suspenseful, I can neither confirm nor deny any details of the plot from this point forward (tee hee) but I'm glad you were intrigued by this portion. Thank you! :)

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