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Saturday, April 18

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Grounding Readers in a Scene

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through May 9.

This week’s question: 

Is this working?

Market/Genre: SpecFic/RomCom

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“Anyone there?” Silence swallowed Ela’s feeble whisper.

She shielded her eyes and examined the sterile environment. Her chest tightened. Unlike the surgical suite, bright light burst from every direction. Goosebumps lined her arms. Where had the trays of instruments, monitors, and nurses gone? She covered her mouth and swallowed a gasp. Creamy clouds billowed beside the gurney and covered the floor.

Ela wiggled her toes under the warm, snow-white blanket. She tugged on the tie at her neck. A nurse had helped her into the thin green gown so it opened in the front. She raised her hand and skipped her fingers across her abdomen. Where she expected stitches or staples, smooth skin greeted her touch. The aftercare instructions for her tummy tuck and lifts said she’d feel discomfort. But, as she raised her head off the gurney, she had none. In fact, she couldn’t recall the last time she’d felt this well.

She touched her chin, eyelids, and lips—no evidence of surgical intervention. Why hadn’t the doctor completed the procedures? Her pulse quickened and butterflies stirred in the pit of her stomach. She threw off the blanket and sat up. Too quickly.

An unsettling blur swirled around her. When strong hands steadied her, she screamed.

A man stood before her. A gold earring looped through one earlobe accented his salt and pepper hair. Her doctor and the surgical personnel had worn scrubs and identification badges. This man had neither. His light gray suit hugged his tall frame, and the crisp white shirt beneath the jacket enhanced his tan skin.

A chill descended her spine. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Why didn’t they do the surgeries?”

My Thoughts in Blue:

“Anyone there?” Silence swallowed Ela’s feeble [this qualifier denotes a weakened state, is that accurate?] whisper.

She shielded her eyes [from what?] and examined the sterile [why does she think it’s sterile?] environment. Her chest tightened. Unlike the surgical suite, [is that where she was?] bright light burst from every direction. Goosebumps lined [I couldn’t envision this] her arms. Where had the trays of instruments, monitors, and nurses gone? She covered her mouth and swallowed a gasp. Creamy [this usually refers to a moist substance (pudding) – perhaps go with a visual, like translucent?] clouds billowed beside the gurney and covered [this is confusing, are the clouds not gurney high?] the floor.

Ela wiggled her toes under the warm, snow-white blanket. [this made me wonder what color the rest of the space was] She tugged on the tie at her neck. [confusing – is she wearing a necktie?] A nurse had helped her [was she too infirm to slip the gown on herself?] into the thin green gown [this needs to come first, then the tie tugging] so it opened in the front. She raised her hand and skipped her fingers across her abdomen. Where she expected stitches or staples, smooth skin greeted her touch. The aftercare instructions for her tummy tuck and lifts said she’d feel discomfort. But, as she raised her head off the gurney, [would raising her head have caused discomfort? Would that be the ‘test’ action for discomfort?] she had none. In fact, she couldn’t recall the last time she’d felt this well.

She touched her chin, eyelids, and lips—no evidence of surgical intervention. Why hadn’t the doctor completed the procedures? [these two terms made me think Ela was a purposeful, purpose-filled person] Her pulse quickened and butterflies stirred in the pit of her stomach. She threw off the blanket and sat up. Too quickly. [what happened?]

An unsettling blur [of what?] swirled around her. When [I would drop this and go for the blunt statement here] Strong hands steadied her and she screamed.

A man stood before her. [where is he, exactly?] A gold earring looped through one earlobe accented his salt and pepper hair. Her doctor and the surgical personnel had worn scrubs and identification badges. This man had neither. His light gray suit hugged his tall frame, and the crisp white shirt beneath the jacket enhanced his tanned skin. [nice!]

A chill descended her spine. [a bit cliché, can we allow the chill to do something else?] “Who are you? Where did you come from? Why didn’t they do the surgeries?”

The Question: 

1. Is this working?

The overall, yes, is working – meaning that we have a female character in a situation that doesn’t meet her expectations, who is then confronted with a male stranger. The scene works as far as generating enough questions, along with the introduction of the stranger, to encourage readers to turn the page to get answers and find out who the stranger might be.

I struggled a bit to get grounded in the scene. I appreciate that the author may be setting up a loose environment to bring me closer to the mystery Ela is facing. However, the description pushes my speculations toward a quickly drawn conclusion of: ‘oh, she died during surgery…’

But then, a bit further, it’s clear the surgery was cosmetic, not life threatening or an emergency. So, scratch the whole dead-on-the-table idea.

Her opening whisper is feeble. Her chest tightens. Her arms erupt in goosebumps. Has she just come out of a sedated state? Bright light bursts from every direction, she shields her eyes, implying she is nearly blinded – yet she can see clouds surrounding her.

I would like to see her establish early on that she’s on the gurney. I would like to see what brought her to conclude it was a ‘sterile’ environment. I would like to see the clouds being observed, and then be shown her reaction of gasping. I would like to know why she wonders about the nurses, trays of instruments and monitors, but not the doctor(s)? I would like to know if she’s afraid or curious, so I get a hint of what kind of woman/girl she is.

(Here's more on 3 Secrets to Writing Vivid Settings)

I wonder why she wiggled her toes. I wonder why she tugged at the gown’s ties at her neck (is she trying to untie or are they too tight?). I wonder why the blanket is snow white. I wonder what the rest of the space looks like, beyond the ‘creamy’ (assumed to be white) clouds.

I want to be more deeply immersed in her situation and feelings, but I’m unsure about either.

The lack of surgical marks or discomfort leads Ela to conclude the surgery wasn’t done. My speculating mind screams: ‘She died on the table! She died on the table!’. The last line of the sentence puts the nail in the coffin, so to speak, for me – she can’t remember when she felt this well!

Sitting up too quickly is stated like there was a negative physical result, but it’s left unexplained – and considering Ela had just said she felt better than ever before, this creates a conflict.

When the new character is introduced, it is confusing that he is close enough to hold her and make her scream, yet be standing ‘before’ her, which seems like that would be at the foot of the gurney she’s on. If he were standing ‘beside’ her, after steadying her, he would be close enough to be startling or frightening.

(Here's more on Painting Your Story World)

The strange man’s description again seems to be given more from the vantage point of several feet away (at foot of gurney), rather than one or two feet away (beside her). I base this on the mention of the fit of his suit. I presume the designation of him being tall would be made in relation to the assumed height of the gurney, though it appears she cannot see the floor.

All this positioning needs to be clarified so readers can become more engaged and accurately interpret the scene. The description of the man would come in a rush, a single initial focusing, so what you relate is well done. The reader gets an intense snapshot – bam!

My only real concern with this sample, besides the little notes given, is that I so easily felt she had died and this man was the angel who had come to greet her. I realize this speculation is a product of my background and such but feel that many readers may draw the same type of conclusion. I would rather speculate that Ela was kidnapped from her surgery for nefarious reasons and all kinds of adventures will follow. And I would read on to find out more…

(Here's more on Write What You Don't Know: POV and Description)

You have a good start here with sufficient information to generate reader interest. I would read on, and I bet others would also. [readers, please add your encouragement!]

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

8 comments:

  1. Dear Maria,
    THANK YOU!!! Your critique opened my eyes to what works and definitely to what doesn't!! You got it right - Ela died (the angel supplies what went wrong pre-surgery in the next few lines).
    I am so grateful for your time and help!! Many thanks! :)

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    1. You're so welcome! Even guessing what happened, your story can go on to be fun, serious, mysterious and surprising. Have fun with it!

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  2. I agree, this is description that hasn't worked out its priorities yet.

    The big one for me is, you describe the room more by what it isn't than what it is: the instruments are missing. You don't say what she *does* see except the light, and then the gurney under her and the clouds. That's not the same as saying that at first the dazzling light is all she sees, then she makes out that the instruments (and the whole room!) are gone, and instead there are "clouds" floating around as far as she can see.

    Since we're scrambling to form our first picture of these, every word has a chance to lead us down the right or wrong path. "Sterile environment" is the first description you give, and it's a summary that doesn't tell us why it's sterile (our first guess is a surgical suite, and then you go on to say it's *not* that). "Light burst" sounds more like it just lit up (flashbulbs?), unlike say "glared" or "shone."

    Most of all, "clouds" is a hugely different word from "mist" or "clouds of mist." It conjures a complete picture of someone suddenly in Heaven (or skydiving), so fast the reader's left wondering if you really wanted that assumption (pun intended).

    You're trying to describe this in pieces, and show Ela scrambling to fit them together and understand. I think that's exactly how you want to show this, but you want to be more careful which pieces come in which order, the way her eyes (and ears, hands, and nose) really would take them in. If you want to use "clouds," it might be her last thought as she starts to understand what the vapors are and what they mean.

    One other side of this is Ela herself. The hardest part of a first scene is setting the situation but at the same time giving us our first handle on what kind of person is reacting to it all. Here Ela has every reason to be in shock, but you still want to give us some basics as fast as possible. Getting the words "cosmetic surgery" into the second line or so would do a lot to narrow down her age and background.

    Best of all would be if you can find a really distinctive, illustrative reaction she gives right off that brings her to, um, life. Does she immediately yell for a lawyer, tense for a fight, or wonder what she was drinking -- and those just scratch the surface of how unique she could be. An Everywoman in a unique heavenly situation could be a good story, but not as good as THIS IS ELA in that spot, and the faster we start appreciating Ela's half of that the better.

    One of the greatest tools in writing is point of view. Think of a documentary camera playing over a scene, with a commentary from the photographer. What does Ela notice first, what does she think about that, what's next, and how do those fit together to show us both the complete situation and Ela herself?

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    1. Hi Ken, I am so thankful you took the time to respond. Can I be honest? I agree I have work to do, lots of it!!!! :) But I'm a little confused... Sterile, by definition can mean barren - what I was going for. Ela begins to ask questions about her situation in the 2nd paragraph - the fact that she's not accepting her situation is so Ela-esque, as revealed in the rest of the book, separating her from those who would just accept their deadness (the angel actually says this a page later).

      Maria's suggestion, and I'm thankful you hit on the same thing, to make the clouds translucent is EXCELLENT!! Much much clearer!!

      What I'm so excited about is that you know she's died! No question - which was a struggle for many! Yippeee!! :)

      What bothers me the most, confuses me, is the placement of info. Not everything can go in the first paragraph. To me, setting the stage and then defining the character(s), especially introducing secondary characters in the first page, well, those were the things I thought were paramount. Hence my confusion... ???
      Many thanks for your honest, helpful thoughts!! I appreciate your time and wisdom! :)

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    2. Glad I could help. (The thing that bothered me about "sterile" was that you said so little else about the basics of how the place looked at first, and without those having a partial refining description looks odd.)

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    3. Okay, gotcha. THANK YOU for your time and help!! Much appreciated! :)

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  3. Is this the first scene in the book? If so, I would be intrigued and want to read on, but I agree with the critique that it needs more grounding. When I read the first sentence, I thought she was standing in the doorway of a room. Then I got distracted by what I read as an implication that the surgical suite did not having bright lights, as I would imagine people who are operating would want good lighting (it makes more sense to me now that I know she's dead). Then it was a bit jarring to me when I realized she was on the gurney and not standing in a doorway.

    Also, maybe I was a little slow in figuring things out, but when I read the part about the clouds by the gurney I thought someone had gassed all the nurses (and somehow spared Ela and the stranger) and that the nurses were lying passed out on the floor, invisible under the clouds. When she doesn't have marks from the surgery, I imagined some sort of magic at work that had healed her (and saved her from the gas).

    Overall, I probably would have been less confused if I had paid attention to the genre. While I think this scene works well as a first scene in that it gets right to the action and has questions to draw the reader in, I'm wondering if might help to orient the reader if you start with her being sedated and maybe some thoughts that she has on the surgery - is she excited, scared, or maybe she feels obligated to get surgery to protect her career? Then when she wakes up the readers can feel her confusion along with her.

    If you can get the reader grounded I think this will work well.

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    1. This is really helpful - thank you!! Tho the saving her career info comes on page two, that maybe 300 words too late to orient the reader. Many thanks!! :)

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