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

Saturday, April 4

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Historical YA Opening

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 18.

This week’s question:

Is this working?

Market/Genre: Young Adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This first chapter is a story set in 1960 -1961 era, about a fourth grade teacher in a poverty ridden small southern town. She refuses to teach children who is not within her ‘social status’. The first part describes her social status and establishes how important she thinks she and her husband are in the town. It also reveals the reasoning behind her refusal to teach the under-privileged children. The second chapter goes straight to the un-lucky boy placed in her classroom.

Mr. and Mrs. Whitherspoon were proud to say they were among society’s social elite of a tiny southern town in North West Georgia called Summerville. Mr. Whitherspoon was a respected defense lawyer within the community and would go so far as to say he was as famous as his colleague and very close friend, Defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook. Although many of Whitherspoon’s friends certainly thought the subject was debatable.

Charles Whitherspoon, a short, beefy, neckless man with a walrus-like, thick grey mustache and a shiny bald head, was quite the opposite of his wife, Bertha, a fourth-grade teacher. She was tall with a pencil-straight figure, horse-faced and bony, beady black eyes, and thin straight lips. She wore her salt and pepper hair in a tight bun atop her head. She had a beak nose and nearly twice the usual amount of neck of an average person, which comes in quite handy since it’s her habit of looking down on the people around her. The image of Olive Oyl and Wimpy from the popular Popeye cartoon was usually the first impression one had when meeting the couple for the first time. Some would say if the two hadn’t met, they’d have led a lonely life.

The Whitherspoons had everything they ever wanted and then some. Flaunting their wealth in the small mill town, especially in front of those less fortunate than them, was one of the couple’s favorite pastimes. Charles deliberately flashed large wads of cash while paying for small items in the Southern 5 & Dime or the McGinnis Drug store, the State Restaurant, the M & M Restaurant, or several of the many retail stores downtown.

The couple lived in a stately two-story, red-brick house on Cherry Hill Estate Road. A black wrought-iron fence surrounds the immaculately manicured lawn, which was dotted here and there with several large water oaks, and red and yellow maple trees.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Mr. and Mrs. Whitherspoon were proud to say they were among society’s [a bit word soupish here…can we present the same idea more concisely?] social elite of Summerville, a tiny southern [don’t need this, as Georgia = ‘southern’] town in North West Georgia called Summerville. [used the name twice in one sentence] Mr. Whitherspoon was a respected defense lawyer within the community and would go so far as to say he was as famous as his colleague and very close friend, Defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook. Although many of Whitherspoon’s friends certainly thought the subject was debatable.

Charles Whitherspoon, a short, beefy, neckless man with a walrus-like, thick grey mustache and a shiny bald head, [put this description with his profession and enrich the image] was quite the opposite of his wife, Bertha, a fourth-grade teacher. She was tall with a pencil-straight figure, horse-faced and bony, beady black eyes, and thin straight lips. She wore her salt and pepper hair in a tight bun atop her head. She had a beak nose and nearly twice the usual amount of neck of an average person, [this needs to be shortened, the rest can be inserted later, when meeting the protagonist?] which comes [came] in quite handy since it’s [it was] her habit of looking down on the people around her. [this made me grin, nice projection of personality into physical] The image of Olive Oyl and Wimpy from the popular Popeye cartoon was usually the first impression one had when meeting the couple for the first time. [another smile – wonder if all readers will get this reference] Some would say if the two hadn’t met, they’d have led a lonely life. [I like this line, it’s an old one, but adds folksy tone – is that what you want?]

The Whitherspoons had everything they ever wanted and then some. Flaunting their wealth in the small mill town, especially in front of those less fortunate than them, was one of the couple’s favorite pastimes. Charles deliberately flashed large wads of cash while paying for small items in the Southern 5 & Dime or the McGinnis Drug store, the State Restaurant, the M & M Restaurant, or several of the many retail stores downtown. [this is more than needed – a generalization won’t bury the point here]

The couple lived in a stately two-story, red-brick house on Cherry Hill Estate Road. A black wrought-iron fence surrounds [surrounded] the immaculately manicured lawn, which was dotted here and there with several large water oaks, and red and yellow maple trees. [this description can’t be used by the reader to enhance any storyline, take it out and nothing changes, nothing is lost]

The Question:

1. Does this opening work?


Sort of… (readers please let us know your thoughts!)

It depends on your intentions here or what you wanted to accomplish. Right now, you have the introduction of two characters and their backstory. Not the beginning of a story… I view all of this as material that could be woven into the body of the story, after the protagonist is presented and before the conflict and hook are encountered.

I might read past all this in search of the protagonist and the story, which your notes advise happens in the second chapter.

If you want to open with backstory, then I suggest presenting it in a crisp, tight way using strong, stark information that lays a dramatic groundwork for the introduction of the protagonist. This might be half or even a third of the current word count.

(Here's more on Sprinkling Seeds of Backstory: How This Writing Faux Pas Can Work In Your Story)

Consider crafting very sharp caricatures of these two characters that point to their built-in intractabilities and potential as aggressors. Create descriptions that aren’t just physical, but that present the prickly personality parts of each character. Create reader perceptions that point to trouble or danger.

When you don’t have a conflict or hook to give, draw a picture of people who are always looking for a fight or hold impossibly wrong ideas that simply must create problems. These are people who will create conflict wherever they go and with anyone they encounter.

Setting up characters in this way, briefly and sharply, creates sympathy for the protagonist before he/she is even on the page. You have created a world where the reader is already sorry for anyone who has to deal with these creeps.

(Here's more on Whose Head is it Anyway? Understanding Omniscient Point of View)

The success of this kind of opening will depend on how much time the reader has to spend with it, and then how and when you introduce the protagonist. You can shock the reader initially with these two characters, then introduce the protagonist, who lives in dread because the teacher’s reputation has preceded his encounter with her, as quickly as possible. Readers make a quick judgement of the teacher, you have sparked sympathy for the unknown but inevitable protagonist, and then you offer up the innocent, impoverished boy as the protagonist.

With the distant narrator, this is all essentially told, so that telling needs to be brief as possible, like a very sharp rap between the reader’s eyes. Then a mental leap to the protagonist – the lamb to the slaughter – and an instinctive reaction to protect the protagonist or at least wince at the anticipated torment.

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

Since we don’t have a close POV here, showing becomes difficult, but not impossible. You can describe general actions of the teacher that show her disregard for others or her predisposition to certain values. Don’t just tell the reader she’s disgusting, show some of the things that make her disgusting. Build some tangibles about her personality that readers can use to build images and impressions of the character.

Re-reading this several times, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was set in 1860, not 1960, as you indicated in your brief with the material. I see no hints of that decade that ground the story. Also, the distant POV contributes to a more formal feeling, as in another era of formality. After all, 1960 is only 60 years back, and the culture of that era is still regularly circulated via TV reruns and comic references, at the least.

(Here's more on One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions)

I can see potential here, in these two characters, and how they will shape the upcoming story. However, you see that I say ‘upcoming story’… The story has not yet begun. You can create abrupt portraits of these two characters that shoves the reader face-to-face with them and their role in the story as conflict creators, but brevity would be necessary.

There seem to be several ways into this story, including the boring path of introducing the protagonist first. The issue for me is that I have no idea what the story will be about, so am just grasping at the idea of the teacher being the epicenter of terrible things. If this is a ‘school’ drama YA story, then Mrs. Whitherspoon could be used as the primary antagonist.

Overall you have at least two characters that live in your imagination and can be well portrayed for the story. I do find it interesting that in your notes you don’t mention the presumed protagonist’s name – the impoverished boy student who is everything Mrs. Whitherspoon hates. You need to be aware that at present, the teacher is being spotlighted instead of the protagonist.

Lots to work with here – experiment with openings and make the decision on who is most important in the story and how you can immediately introduce that character to the reader.

Good luck!!

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

14 comments:

  1. There was something about this introduction that reminded me of the first Harry Potter book. In that story, chapter one introduces us to the Dursley's before we hear anything of Harry, but does so in a way that immediately hints of conflict and trouble. J.K. Rowling is setting the stage for conflict and when Harry arrives, we understand exactly what he is in store for him. This sets up great sympathy for the protagonist as well.

    Today, more than ever, the first words and the first sentences of a book decide whether a reader will buy this book or go on to the next. With that in mind, think how can the first paragraph can do what you want it to do while still delivering a question, a conflict, or a promise.

    Perhaps taking a look at Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone's opening pages may provide some ideas how to introduce the story with a hint of trouble to come.

    The good news is the characters appear well thought out, the writing is crisp, and the story has a promising plot - with a little tweaking you will have a great first chapter that will grab your reader.

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so very much for your suggestions Lynne! Actually, the harry potter book was where I fashioned my characters from. my thoughts were to present the problems facing the protagonist coming in the second chapter. this is my first attempt and I have so much to learn.

      Delete
  2. I agree, this probably isn't where you want to start the story. Authors have begun novels this way for generations, but these days readers expect the story to go quickly into a specific scene with a hook. (Not always, but it's much harder to hold the reader with a general opening like this.)

    Reading this, I was impressed by some of your details here. But I also got the sense that you either believed the story had to start in this general tone, or you were doing what many writers find they've done: they write a first chapter that's actually their own getting to know the story, while their second chapter makes a great start once a couple of key points are woven in.

    Picking what moment to begin a story at (and/or, what bits of narration to mix in) is maybe the hardest single choice in writing. You might ask yourself, what's the one thing we most need to know about Mrs. Witherspoon, and what situation can show that off best and work in some important other points smoothly -- including pointing us where the story's really going.

    For instance, the strongest impression I took from this was of Charles waving that cash around town. That's an image strong enough that it can create a whole character's basics in maybe one line, plus the context that it's the small town that makes him such a "big fish" there. You could make that your opening scene, and probably make it one where he and his wife are also talking about her work as a teacher, in a way that tells us that classroom is where she's going to cause and get into trouble.

    Another place you might start would be to show the world from Mrs. Witherspoon's view. Pick a scene (or just maybe a bit of narration) that shows how her life is made up of *expecting* things to go her way. You can slant it so we understand you're setting her up as an antagonist, but also show that her experience gives her reasons to be so unbending. (You might even mention frustration or tragedy that shows she might have been sympathetic, except that she reacts in the worst way to it.) Or all of this might be information you don't want to give away early, so you only hint at it until much later.

    One other thing: you spend a number of lines describing the characters' looks in detail. You do it better than many writers because you bring it around to an overall impression and conclusion, but it's still enough information at once to slow the flow down. You might trim it down to a couple of lines at first and work the other details in as the scene develops. Or just maybe you could make this the first paragraph, if you made the descriptions fun and ominous enough, and went quickly to a scene that showed what such strange people are like to actually deal with.

    Again, what's the one thing your reader needs to know first, and how can you grab them with it? You could do it with narration like this, if you make it as crisp and interesting as the authors that pull this off. Or you might find there's a scene that puts us into the story better.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ken, wow! thanks for such wonderful advise. this gives a whole new spin on my story for me. can't wait to dig in and re-arrange stuff.

      Delete
  3. There really is a Summerville in north west Ga. about like most small towns anywhere. Several big fish in a small pond and everyone else is a small fish.
    Agree the list of where the husband flashed his wad of cash is too long or unnecessary. Unless the author has promised a friend that owns one of them that they would be mentioned. That used to happen with authors and painters. Now they call it product placement fees.
    I got bogged down in the physical description of the husband and wife. Didn’t add much to my perception of them. Might be better placed as the boy sees them?
    Agree that there isn’t a time reference. With the large handlebar mustache it does sound much earlier than the 1960s. Could be just part of his ego.
    I, personally, would rather see a scene with their interactions instead of just telling. Having the husband buying a small item and paying with a ten or twenty dollar bill and the looks of the people around him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mike, you're right about the location. I live in Summerville, Georgia. and it is a tiny town. and there really are people just like my characters living in Summerville. I try to stay away from them though. I love your advice about letting Freddy Stone, the protagonist describe the Whitherspoons through his POV. thanks you so much!

      Delete
  4. Still thinking about this opening this morning...

    My concern about showing the era remains topmost in my mind. Small towns in the south can still be stuck in the past, especially in technology and progressive social ideas. You specifically noted the decade in which the story takes place (60s). If this is important to the story, then get the reader grounded right away in that era.

    The description of the house doesn't say '60s'. The listing of the businesses where money was flashed and spent don't say '60s'. As I mentioned before, that decade isn't 100 years ago and there were things that were special to it.

    I'm not saying to be too overt about bringing this timing out, but something as simple as owning the first color TV in a small town could reflect not only the time, but how aggressive this couple pursued being 'first' and 'best' in all things.

    A little research about what was new, cutting edge, back then might unearth a nugget that would delight readers. My personal experience in the 60s was that my grandparents on the farm still had a crank telephone! However, the wealthy in the tiny town nearby had 'dial' phones. There are iconic items that signal every decade that would also be symbols of wealth or being 'better'.

    I'm suggesting looking for instant placeholders and spinning personality and values off them. I feel you have the ability to accomplish something special in character creation.

    And see? Your story start is already stuck in my head!

    ReplyDelete
  5. thanks so much Maria for your suggestions. the first dial telephone in Summerville came to house holds October, 16th 1960. I will dig deeper in the 60's era and find more interesting facts. I really appreciate your time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm excited once again to work harder on my story. I have so very much to learn. This is full of great advice for me.

    ReplyDelete
  7. should I begin the story with the protagonist Freddy Stone instead of the antagonists the Whitherspoons?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Well then you are doing great - first attempts are like the start of pottery - still doughy and needing shape. You will get there for sure -
    Find what works for you, as it's your book. Go on line (I would say go to the bookstore but that's not happening - at least here in NY it's not) and read the first paragraphs of books that you enjoy and fit into your genre. See how the characters are introduced. Look for the first hints of trouble, conflict, etc. Then examine your first two chapters and see how you can introduce your characters, a hint of what conflict might come, and if possible a glimpse into the protagonist's desire, which will propel the entire book. I've always loved the beginning of Hunger Games - those first few pages say so much. But there are so many other books that grab you at that first line or the first page - Because of Winn Dixie starts like this: "My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog." Wow. How much is said in that one sentence. We know the protagonist's name, we know time has gone by, we can assume they are not very well off if all they are getting is macaroni, rice and two tomatoes. And we have the problem - she came back with a dog. How hard is it to put that book down.
    Find books that are popular and you will typically find opening scenes that pull you into the story. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have read because of winn dixie it was awesome! I read the rest of her books too. I've also found several more books that I cant put down. I want to write so bad but get so frustrated when I cant figure out the correct way to do it. I need to learn how to flesh my characters out and am having a hard time doing it. with advice like yours I will head in the right direction. thank you so much! Roxie Weesner

    ReplyDelete
  10. Read(or re-read)through Janice's Fiction University Tips. Buy her books as you move forward. I've found so much solid "how to" info in her articles. I have found writing to be extremely challenging...and have always been told I'm a "natural" writer. Like anything else, that basic skill needs practice, practice, practice to hone into beautiful music. Keep reading, not only novels, but books on writing. You can do it...just persevere!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. thanks Marcia. I do have all of Janice's books and love them. that's how I found out about the fiction university WIP. sooooo excited to be involved with this! I appreciate yours and everyone's advice. Roxie Weesner

    ReplyDelete