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Saturday, May 30

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Creating Compelling Openings

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 June 20.

This week’s questions:

1. Do you find the opening easy to understand? If not, why not?

2. Do you find it compelling? If so, why?

3. Can you easily access the story, setting and character?

4. Are you immediately engaged? If not, why not?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Kati Fraenkel hated lilacs. She hated the flowers, the color, the smell. She hated lilacs because they reminded her of The Cupboard.

The Cupboard, whose cramped interior reeked of sour scent, stale smoke and smelly shoes; whose narrow confines forced her to squeeze small as a mouse into the corner; through whose paper-thin walls she could hear shouts and groans and cries, although she herself was forbidden to make the slightest sound.

"Or else!"

The threat was clear. Five months of hiding had taught her the wisdom of silence. That one small cough, one errant sneeze could bring swift and brutal retaliation. Five months of hiding had taught her, at four years old, that darkness and silence were her friends.

Desolate, cold and lonely, Kati crouched in the cupboard and tried to remember beautiful things from the Other World. Things like a tender word, a loving smile, the soft, warm comfort of Mumma’s arms. Mumma, whose laughter bubbled like the French champagne she loved to sip, whose voice danced like shimmering sunbeams. Mumma, whose gentle touch, soft caress and feathery kisses still hugged her memory. No longer however could Kati recall the color of her eyes, the feel of her hair, the shape of her face. No longer did she recollect if Mumma was tall or short, fat or thin.

As fragments of childhood memory flashed through her mind like a horrifying nightmare, Kati wondered why she’d never been able to shake herself free of the pain they evoked. She’d been so young then, hardly more than a babe, yet the shame and humiliation still haunted her.

As did the constant fear of abandonment.

When Papa went away, Mumma told her it wouldn't be for long and that he'd soon return. He did. Twice. But then left again. She kept asking and asking for him but he never did come back. Then it was Grandpa’s turn. Grandpa with his smell of cigar smoke and big, boisterous belly laugh. Grandpa who used to bounce her on his knee and pop colored bonbons into her mouth. She remembered that after he left, the house became very quiet. And with the passing of time, it turned even quieter. Nobody laughed anymore. Nobody even smiled. And Mumma, who had always loved to play games and read her bedtime stories, stopped paying her any attention. She was too busy whispering with Grandma or nursing baby Tibi.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Kati Fraenkel hated lilacs. She hated the flowers, the color, the smell. She hated lilacs because they reminded her of The Cupboard. [I’m confused…where do lilacs come into play with the cupboard? The description below has nothing to do with lilacs.]

The Cupboard, whose cramped interior reeked of sour scent, stale smoke and smelly shoes; whose narrow confines forced her to squeeze small as a mouse into the corner; through whose paper-thin walls she could hear shouts and groans and cries, although she herself was forbidden to make the slightest sound. [I’m waiting for the end of the sentence – the Cupboard (description/description/description) does…what? creates…what? means what? Her being forbidden to make a sound is a separate issue, not currently tied to what/who the Cupboard is]

"Or else!"

The threat was clear. [do we need this explanation/qualifier?] Five months of hiding [wait…is she hiding or being told to get in the cupboard?] had taught her the wisdom of silence. That one small cough, one errant sneeze could bring swift and brutal retaliation. [from who?] Five months of hiding had taught her, at four years old, that darkness and silence were her friends.

Desolate, cold and lonely, Kati crouched [this firmly places me in the present, with Kati…] in the cupboard and tried to remember beautiful things from the Other World. [I’m curious about this … a 4-year-old’s way of segregating happenings?] Things like a tender word, a loving smile, the soft, warm comfort of Mumma’s arms. Mumma, whose laughter bubbled like the French champagne she loved to sip, whose voice danced like shimmering sunbeams. [I had trouble with this as there is no association with sound] Mumma, whose gentle touch, soft caress and feathery kisses still hugged her memory. [I had trouble with this also, how to parse out things of memory hugging a memory] No longer however could Kati recall the color of her eyes, the feel of her hair, the shape of her face. [this appears to be that Kati cannot recall her own face, etc.] No longer did she recollect if Mumma was tall or short, fat or thin.

As fragments of childhood memory flashed through her mind like a horrifying nightmare, Kati wondered [I am abruptly jerked from being with 4-year-old Kati to being with older-Kati at some unknown time and place] why she’d never been able to shake herself free of the pain they evoked. She’d been so young then, hardly more than a babe, yet the shame and humiliation [confused about what happenings created shame and humiliation, as presented above] still haunted her.

As did the constant fear of abandonment.

When Papa went away, Mumma told her it wouldn't be for long and that he'd soon return. He did. Twice. But then left again. She kept asking and asking for him but he never did come back. Then it was Grandpa’s turn. Grandpa with his smell of cigar smoke and big, boisterous belly laugh. Grandpa who used to bounce her on his knee and pop colored bonbons into her mouth. She remembered that after he left, the house became very quiet. And with the passing of time, it turned even quieter. Nobody laughed anymore. Nobody even smiled. And Mumma, who had always loved to play games and read her bedtime stories, stopped paying her any attention. She was too busy whispering with Grandma or nursing baby Tibi. [curious about this – and would read on to cobble this backstory together, hopefully]

The Questions:

1. Do you find the opening easy to understand? If not, why not?

My initial confusion is the hatred of lilacs and the connection to the Cupboard. This idea sits in the most prominent spot in the book, so I presume it is a prominent bit of information, perhaps even key to understanding the entire story. Something this important needs to be framed in a way that allows readers to tolerate carrying it around in their heads until it’s resolved.

After the confusion of the lilac ‘issue’, I wondered why she didn’t just hate the cupboard and all, or one, of the ‘reeks’ in that space.

Beyond that issue, you brought me slam-bam into what the cupboard was, what it meant for/to her, and how she, at the tiny age of four, was handling it. The phrase ‘darkness and silence were her friends’ closes out a paragraph that shrunk me down into this little character’s world.

You drew me into her little piece of hell, easily qualified how old she was, how long she had been learning about being silent – but I was confused and uncertain about whether she was put in the Cupboard by someone (who?) or if it was her choice, her ‘hiding’ spot when things became violent or scary. I also was uncertain about whether she had been hiding or confined to the Cupboard multiple times in five months, or had been in there (like a prisoner) for that long. The latter seemed unlikely, but still, this lack of clarification forced me to make an uninformed choice about the parameters of her time in the Cupboard.

I would suggest considering different ways to frame this moment of remembering. You do manage to engage quickly, but when the scene is revealed as a memory, you can lose that precious bonding. If you want to use the lilac element, then consider bringing that scent into the scene immediately, then have the MC react to it (100 different ways and degrees of doing that) or indicate that the scent triggers the memory. This is a PTSD element that could be part of her current struggle or hope for normalcy.

When all we have is a memory, followed by the character’s self-reflection, we have no story – yet. This information is interesting, the memory can be compelling to readers, but they will still be waiting to put one foot on the ground, get their balance, secure a toehold on the ledge.

Fun fact: most readers don’t mind this insecurity – for a while – but soon they will want to climb up into the story or be knocked off the cliff edge to go flying into the midst of it. Remember: you control how their engagement occurs and what consequences follow.

If you want the lilac element, show why it could be, might be, or is an important part of the story. And do that through Kati’s perceptions, internal thoughts, reactions, and actions.

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

2. Do you find it compelling? If so, why?

Yes – readers chime in! I want to know a lot of things… Why a 4-year-old would become ‘invisible’ within her family and be shut up in a cupboard? Is she ever let out or is she a perpetual prisoner? Who exacts the punishment if she makes a noise? Why the father and grandfather left?

I’m caught, interested, wanting to know more… and then, at paragraph six, comes: ‘fragments of childhood memory flashed through her mind’ and I’m stopped cold. Am I caught up and invested in a memory – not the opening scene?

And when Kati continues with more reflection, I wait – looking for a way to connect the interest I just had with whatever the actual opening scene might be.

So, yes, the opening ‘scene’ is compelling, but is free-floating, as memories tend to be, and the ‘real’ scene is happening within Kati’s head, which is … somewhere?

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

3. Can you easily access the story, setting and character?

I’m not certain what you are asking here but will make some assumptions and give the best answer I can.

The scene has no ‘real-time’ setting that I can discern. The MC seems to be reflecting on the past, but I don’t know where she is or what, if anything, has prompted the memories. So, I cannot access the story yet, as I don’t have enough information to give me a starting place.

The setting is vivid and well done, but it’s a memory, so the setting Kati is actually in, while reflecting on this memory, is non-existent, not accessible.

The 4-year-old Kati is compelling, and you bring us quickly and forcefully into her world and her perceptions – within this memory. I have no idea who Kati is now or what this early experience has done to her beyond the statements about her residual fears and pain.

This question, as I have interpreted it, reveals that we are given poignant, terrifying backstory via a memory. I would read on simply based on what you have created in these few initial paragraphs.

I believe that if you can develop a way to introduce Kati, as the person she is now, briefly and intensely, and then have the memory take her over – or perhaps insinuate itself (again…) into a moment of peace – however you prefer to frame the memory, then you can present that memory and offer the reader a way into the story, as well as providing an immediate and intimate introduction to your protagonist.

(Here’s more on 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

4. Are you immediately engaged? If not, why not?

Yes, I was … (readers chime in again please!) … however, the jolt of the initial opening being a memory broke that engagement and created confusion. For me, there wasn’t sufficient transition/preparation for me to integrate the engagement I already had with Kati the-child to Kati not-the-child.

The other obstacle to immediate engagement was the mystery of the lilac hatred.

(Here's more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

I like all that you’ve got here. I’m wanting more stability and framing though. The material deserves that kind of set-up. You show that you are capable of presenting tactile descriptions that move between character perceptions, reality, and even foreshadowing. Showcase these vibrant bits with solid framing and fluid transitions that plunge the reader into intense images that fuse them to the book with a gasp, smile or maybe even goosebumps.

Good luck and thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

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

4 comments:

  1. I agree, the cupboard is a compelling device. The question is, what does it mean for the story *now*?

    Beginning with a single driving memory is an effect similar to a prologue: it leads by isolating one fact that's separate from the main flow. A prologue would have an actual scene end and have Chapter One of the older Kati dealing with it; here the boundary is softer and lets you get more easily to what Kati's become. But the goal should be the same: to make your initial point so that it helps define what Kati is now.

    Maria's idea of starting with Kati in her own life and letting the memory push into that is one solid way to do that. Or if you like the strong opening of the memory itself, fair enough -- the trick could be to move us past that four-year-old sensation in just a paragraph or two, so we don't mistake the past for the present. The impression works as a memory, if we soon move on to the actual scene it relates to.

    What's the "real" opening scene of Kati now, where our first impression was that memory and the second was the present that contrasts with it? Is it seeing a stronger Kati who's able to hide her one private horror, or is her life now twisted in other ways and the cupboard was only the most intense part of it? What's the best thing to *show* her at, where the cupboard memory is only one side of it?

    Or the opening might be Kati's narration rather than a specific scene, like you have here. That can work too, but it's better if it soon gives us a hint of where the memory is headed and what she's become. Historical fiction has a good tolerance for characters reliving their own memories, but we still want the beginning to anchor us with a peek beyond her past. It's especially important because of her age: if you don't hint that she's now well beyond four, it gets harder and harder to see her processing memories in ways that little girl couldn't do.

    You make the cupboard a powerful first step in understanding Kati's life. But if it's in her past, we don't want to be *just* there for long.

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  2. 1. Do you find the opening easy to understand? If not, why not?
    Generally speaking, yes. I don’t understand what the specific threat is, but that’s not particularly necessary on page 1.

    2. Do you find it compelling? If so, why?
    Yes, you’ve established the tension well in this first page & you want to know why her world is threatened. The reader feels her vulnerability hiding in the cupboard, senses her sadness.

    3. Can you easily access the story, setting and character?
    Setting: is a bit weak to me. Given that this piece was introduced as historical fiction and that the character’s last name is given as Fraenkel, I’m assuming this is WWII era, even though there is absolutely nothing in the first page to indicate that.
    Character:
    Please note, for character feedback, I’m NOT around children very much so my thoughts on this may be skewed. Overall a convincing character but I was at moments confused. It is stated that the child is 4 years old, but then later a paragraph reads “as fragments of childhood memory…” as if she were no longer a child now. That can be reworded to sound childlike in its thoughts.

    I also wondered if a child who is only 4 would be so quick to forget what her mother looks like? Maybe they would. Not sure. Perhaps if there was enough trauma over 5 months she would forget what her mother looked like.

    Finally, it’s a fine line to write a child’s thoughts but still write to an adult market. For the most part, I think you hit an even keel with this. The one time I found myself asking “would a 4 year old think this?” was when she was thinking “why she’d never been able to shake herself free of the pain they evoked.” That just sounded to me like an older-than-four thought process. It’s not easy thinking and writing like a child when you haven’t been one for a while. 8-)

    4. Are you immediately engaged? If not, why not?
    Yes, immediately engaged. Though a sense of time, place and setting (apart from the cupboard) have not been established, the author engages the reader from the beginning and you automatically tense up, wondering what is going on and how she’ll get out of this situation, as well as wondering what other bad things are going to happen.

    Hope you find the feedback useful. Thank you for submitting your work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you BK for your encouraging and thought-provoking feedback.
      Interesting that you picked up on the WWII setting (see my comment below to Maria and Ken). It always fascinates me to see how the ideas and intentions in a writer's mind get through to a reader. Thanks again. Your input is much appreciated.

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  3. My grateful thanks to you both, Maria and Ken, on your thoughtful, insightful and very helpful comments.
    This Prologue was the best way I could think of to introduce one of the three main POV characters, Kati who, as an adult, is to play an important role far later on in the story. Maybe all would be clearer if I include in the first few paragraphs the fact that the story begins in Hungary, May 1939-44 and that Kati is the child of a Jewish family. Thank you again.

    ReplyDelete