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Saturday, May 9

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Providing Narrative Clarity

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 13.

This week’s question: 

I am seeking more than narrative clarity and hoping to bring over some feeling, some sense of there being an emotional build up, a sense of distress. Does this succeed?

Market/Genre: Not specified

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

If anyone ever had a good enough reason to commit suicide, it had to be me. I was convinced that I was in the worst possible crisis of my life. In fact, I was beyond desperate. I’d been lonely. I knew pain, but I never believed I had to kill myself in order to tangibly feel my miserable existence. Oh, and recuperation had nothing to do with forgiveness; definitely not in my case.

As it turned out, my favorite philosopher was right. It is about accepting freedom and confronting the mortifying burden of choice. Yes, the use of that word was not accidental. I truly despised myself, because I knew I had made all the decisions in my life. I knew I had brought myself to this. No one did anything to me I didn’t want them to. Even God was not punishing me for my ‘sins.’ It was me who’d been punishing my own sweet self.

I tried to imagine what committing suicide might entail. Considering what Malik had in store for me, I thought I might swallow some pills and jump ship. That’d do the trick. I tried to envision the reaction of the esteemed royal family upon receiving notice that their children’s tutor had gone overboard.

I could just see the whole thing. The Sheikh holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes. Masood, his head of security, approaching with studied insouciance. After all, he’d seen it all before.

“Anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who’d you say it was?”

“Just a teacher. New.”

“She’s gone. We have it on tape.”

“Did she take anything?”

“Just the portable heater. Seems to have tied it ’round her foot”

“The what?”

“The electric radiator Her Highness ordered for stargazing on cold nights.”

“I see something.”

“Really? Now? I don’t think so.”

“In the wake. A head bobbing. Back a way.” He hands over the binoculars to his man.

“You might actually be right.”

“There! Well, she’s not waving, I’ll say that.”

“Too late for that.”

Yes, I could just picture the whole scene. I’d probably jump naked, just for the fun of it. That would give the Emirati coast guard something to think and talk about.

“Naked transsexual found in the marina, bobbing in the water, trying to flee with the Sheikh’s jewels.”

Not difficult to imagine the jokes.

“Thought I heard ‘Man overboard.’ Call this a man?”

“Get a load of those tits.”

“Look at that cock. No wonder she jumped.”

I could just hear them lament in agitation. The entire quagmire of misery and deception arose from a single episode of entrapment, a diabolical plot masterminded by a man as demented as J. Edgar Hoover, who turns out not to have been the only closet queen at the zoo. Malik’s sexual repressions gave an added impetus to his fevered mind, perhaps akin to having a stationary bike in the back of his head, forever pedaling, faster and faster.

My Thoughts in Blue:

If anyone ever had a good enough reason to commit suicide, it had to be [this emphasis feels out of place, forced several re-reads to try to figure it out] me. I was convinced that I was [this seems to intimate that a decision had been made about the measure of the crisis, not that it simply was the worst] in the worst possible crisis of my life. In fact, I was beyond desperate [what does this mean, exactly? If someone is ‘beyond’ desperate, where are they?]. I’d been lonely. I knew pain, but I never believed I had to kill myself in order to tangibly feel my miserable existence. [the conflict presented here – being killed in order to feel – do those who are dead still feel? only establishes confusion.] Oh, and recuperation had nothing to do with forgiveness [this sails over the reader’s head and ability to comprehend]; definitely not in my case.

As it turned out, my favorite philosopher was right. It [what is ‘it’ referring to?] is about accepting freedom and confronting the mortifying burden of choice. Yes, the use of that word [what word?] was not accidental. I truly despised myself, because I knew I had made all the decisions in my life. I knew I had brought myself to this. No one did anything to me I didn’t want them to. Even God was not punishing me for my ‘sins.’ It was me who’d been punishing my own sweet self. [I’m left to my own devices in this paragraph to speculate about what is being referenced and what the situation might be]

I tried to imagine [why must the character ‘try’ to imagine? Are they unable mentally to imagine anything?] what committing suicide might entail. Considering what Malik [Who is Malik?] had in store for me, I thought I might swallow some pills and jump ship. [why go to the trouble of jumping from a ship if the character has access to lethal pills? More confusion] That’d do the trick. I tried to envision [again, why the need to ‘try’?] the reaction of the esteemed royal family upon receiving notice that their children’s tutor [great! the first bit of grounding] had gone overboard.

I could just see the whole thing. [now the character is able to ‘see’ (imagine/envision), but why? What changed?] The Sheikh holding a pair of binoculars to his eyes. Masood, his head of security, approaching with studied insouciance. [yes, I had to stop and look this word up, to ensure I was remembering it correctly, as opposed to indifference or nonchalance…] After all, he’d seen it all before. [I like this as it points me toward the speculation that other tutors had jumped ship to escape their plight of teaching the royal children]

“Anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who’d you say it was?”

“Just a teacher. New.”

“She’s gone. We have it on tape.”

“Did she take anything?”

“Just the portable heater. Seems to have tied it ’round her foot…”

“The what?”

“The electric radiator Her Highness ordered for stargazing on cold nights.”

“I see something.”

“Really? Now? I don’t think so.”

“In the wake. A head bobbing. Back a way.” He hands over the binoculars to his man.

“You might actually be right.”

“There! Well, she’s not waving, I’ll say that.”

“Too late for that.”
[this dialogue cracked me up and gave me a peek at this character’s sense of humor – but didn’t underscore any despair or desperation.]

Yes, I could just picture the whole scene. I’d probably jump naked, [this was a bit startling, but great fun, fitting well with the prior dialogue] just for the fun of it. That would give the Emirati coast guard [another piece of the puzzle] something to think and talk about.

Naked transsexual [new information that qualifies earlier references to ‘she’] found in the marina, bobbing in the water, trying to flee with the Sheikh’s jewels.”

Not difficult to imagine the jokes.

“Thought I heard ‘Man overboard.’ Call this a man?”

“Get a load of those tits.”

“Look at that cock. No wonder she jumped.”

I could just hear them lament in agitation. [this is an odd line – I would remove it and allow the paragraph to start from the next sentence]

The [if ‘my’ instead of ‘the’, I could personalize the situation] entire quagmire of misery and deception arose from a single episode of entrapment, a diabolical plot masterminded by a man as demented as J. Edgar Hoover, who turns out not to have been the only closet queen at the zoo. [is this too ‘inside’ of an aside?] Malik’s sexual repressions gave an added impetus to his fevered mind, perhaps akin to having a stationary bike in the back of his head, forever pedaling, faster and faster. [I like this sentence very much but cannot connect with it. Why the switch in POV?]

The Question: 

1. I am seeking more than narrative clarity and hoping to bring over some feeling, some sense of there being an emotional build up, a sense of distress. Does this succeed?

For me, no, we haven’t yet achieved success… [readers chime in!]

However, your character has gotten my attention. I love the humor – and in piecing a few bits of hard information together, I see the potential for this character to be in a situation that might prove untenable in some places but might prove dangerous/deadly in others. And she might be in one of those places. I don’t mind that this information slowly evolves either.

My main concern is that I’m being forced into white space while the character ruminates about suicide, but essentially by telling and making statements. I can’t care though, because the character and situation are wholly unknown to me. I want to learn, get involved and engaged, but it’s like being dropped into someone’s final thoughts without knowing what got them there. 

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

The lack of definition and overall confusion make the first two paragraphs nearly expendable. It isn’t that you open from this dark place, but that readers aren’t given a way into the character’s head. Without some personal reflection and showing how the character’s suicidal situation is affecting them, it’s difficult to care.

The next paragraph seems to be a deep internal discourse, but again, we start with an undefined ‘it’ and continue floating in the white space. I’m all for philosophical explorations in any novel but this early I also want to know who’s doing the musing and why.

The following paragraph introduces Malik and the idea that (he/she?) intends to do something to our assumed main character. And this character seems to know what that something is…

Knowing that the main character is a tutor for the Royal children adds interest and fuels new speculations – which is fun.

While still looking for a place to put a foot down and be engaged, the material shifts into the silly imaginings of our character, and it’s a wonderful ride. The timing is excellent, and I finally feel the beginnings of connecting with this character. However, I’m still not seeing someone overwrought with misery and considering suicide. Nor am I seeing someone who is becoming more and more desperate. 

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

Instead, I see someone who muddled about in self-degradation (of sorts), some negative affirmations, and dabbles in the idea of suicide, but in reality just wants to escape, not die.

The humor met in this segment pushes me more toward the character being someone whose dire statements are more tongue-in-cheek, who moves into silly imaginings as a natural path of solace in the face of danger. This allows me insight (without being told) into how she views the world.

I do lean toward having you consider opening the scene with the 3rd or 4th paragraph, or a combination of the two. These offer a stronger platform, more information, and a quicker path to the humor element, which is very engaging and could engage readers that much sooner. 

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

Further into the scene, we reach information that could be considered to turn things on an ear – but is a twist that suddenly filled in several vague or missing elements for me. Again, humor is part of the mix, but we see that this attempt at self-soothing isn’t as successful, which provides more depth – and can create compassion as well. And with the reveal of the connection with the UAE, readers (and I) can re-calculate the reality of the situation – and the potential danger of the character being ‘found out’.

All in all, I want to enjoy this story, and feel that the guts are there – we just need a solid opening and more grounding so readers can have a footing to gather info on the character and the story. I want to know more…

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 had a very hard time following this. I am not sure if I am to assume this is the first page of a story or if its just somewhere within a manuscript. In any case, there is ‘forced’ feeling. I am told the character, whoever it is, wants to commit suicide. I am given some confusing narrative that (vaguely) hints at why—a little mystery is good—you don’t have to explain all in a page. But if the reader concludes the reading by being more confused than ever, I’m not sure it works.

    It does provide a personal touch of the character doing what we are all prone to do when we “let our imaginations run away with us” by envisioning what would happen if they went overboard. Still, because I do not know nor have I become invested in the character, it’s hard to feel it deeply or in a real way.

    If this is a story’s opening page, I need something to make me invest in them first. I do not know enough about them to make an attachment or make sense of some confusing wanderings. However, if this is a page from later in the manuscript, it may be that this is all fine and self-explanatory based on the writing that precedes it.

    From what I can gather it sounds like you have a character who is interesting enough that readers will want to follow, but they need to feel a reason to follow the character’s journey first and I don’t feel that here.

    What if you started with the 3rd paragraph but re-worded it to start with the most grabber-element first? This would solve the problem of helping your readers care about your protag.

    Something along the lines of:
    Considering what Malik had in store for me, I ought to just jump ship now. I can see the reaction of the esteemed royal family when they receive notice that their children’s tutor had gone overboard….

    THAT is a grabber opening paragraph. We don’t know who Malik is or what’s going on, but we sure know a threat when we read one. We still have no real idea who the protag is, but we have an interesting scenario and are curious about what is going on.

    That paragraph, followed by the snappy back and forth dialogue would be more effective. But please note, that last paragraph in the submission takes us back to confusion-land again so it might be worth it to re-word or use a different paragraph altogether.

    You have some intriguing elements here to work with. Thanks for submitting!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have definite trouble with this, I'm afraid.

    Opening with a character's thoughts is always difficult, and it works best when it includes clear facts or teases about what's going on that has the person thinking. Here you go several paragraphs musing about suicide, but it's on an abstract level about loneliness and choice, with little about *what* has her considering it.

    Honestly, is the idea of suicide important enough in this story to make it even just your first paragraph, to be just an off-center opening that goes quickly into the danger Malik is? I'm not sure it's even that close to the center of the situation. First and second paragraphs are the most important real estate of the book.

    Writers often find they've written their whole first *chapter* and then realize it was more themselves exploring the story than really being the place to start. What I see here is different ways of looking at the character's frame of mind, the threat (at the end), and of course using the guards' conversation.

    You've got a lot of ways to look at the story, and some interesting wit that comes through. But ask yourself: what's the thing the protagonist *needs* right now, and what are the first things to tell us that fill in that picture? It seems like the answer is "escape" plus you're giving us the villain's name, mention of suicide just as your way to say escape might be hopeless, and that the character's a transsexual tutor for Sheikh's children. How can you line that up so it's easier for us to grab onto?

    This is certainly inventive. But for a story's beginning, does it tell us what we need, fast enough to keep us reading?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Ken that the theme sounds like a protagonist who wants to escape. The good news here is there is a strong, funny voice - and voice is often very hard to capture.

    I agree opening with suicide or suicidal thoughts is difficult - because first the reader must care. We also want to be situated into the scene - where are we? who should we care about? why? What does our protagonist want?

    There is a lot of information thrown at us in the beginning and I think to feel grounded, I need to know just a little bit about what's going on. I like BK's opening line, it brings us into the story and lets us feel how this person feels.

    I sort of want to get a feel what the story is about - is about a transgender person? Is it about a person held captive and willing to die to escape? Is it about the royal family?

    It looks like you have a lot to work with - I think with taking a few of the suggestions on this page and rearranging what you already have you will be able to grab your readers into a read they won't want to put down.

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  4. is suicide not confusing? show her inner turmoil everyone wants the answers right away. one critique says the readers are not smart enough to understand nuance, references to j. Edgar Hoover, and the recuperation critique. how do they know this? are we dumbing down everything, because it sells. it's funny, intriquing, could use some finer point edits- which were mentioned earlier, but a good start.

    ReplyDelete