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Saturday, July 18

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Revising Your Opening 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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 1.

This week’s questions:

1. What writing aspects are most needed to add/delete from this scene? (i.e. More showing, more intriguing issue/problem to start, action, pacing, clearer storyline? etc.)

2. What does/doesn’t work with this scene?

Market/Genre: Romantic Suspense

Note: This is a revision of a previous submission.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

What a surreal day. Malia Hudson embraced her old roommate, Sara at a Maui park. Seated at a picnic table, Malia’s voice cracked. “It’s great to see you after so long.”

“Welcome home, Malia. How was the job interview? Did you get hired?”

Shaded by the palms with trade winds blowing her hair behind her shoulders, Malia glanced downward, her voice soft. “I did.”

Sara tilted her head. “You don’t sound too happy about it. What’s up?”

Malia’s eye twitched. “I’m thrilled to have an environmental interior designer job. None too soon, with my college bills soaring and cash dwindling.” She drew in a breath. “But there’s a new manager. He said my designing is for the interior. No environmental concerns. If there’s a sacred area, it’s desecrated. I guess profit comes first. Yet mainland corporate accepted my environmental credentials for the position. My gut says something’s shifted all of a sudden. So now it’s choosing a paycheck and disrespecting Hawaiian values or not. I’ll check into it soon.”

“For starters, doesn’t he realize there’s even a law against billboards in Hawaii for aesthetic reasons? Can you work for such a development company?”

Malia rubbed the knot in her neck. “Maybe I’ll check with corporate HQ if necessary, but I know the manger wouldn’t like it. He might consider it insubordination. I’m on probation. I need work and it took forever to get this job.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Revision 2

What a surreal day. [is this meant to be internal thought?] Malia Hudson embraced her old roommate, Sara, at a Maui park. Seated at a picnic table, [meaning she sat with Sara at the table?] Malia’s voice cracked. [is she near tears?] “It’s great to see you after so long.”

“Welcome home, Malia. How was the job interview? Did you get hired?”

Shaded by the palms [this could be included in the previous paragraph] with trade winds blowing her hair behind her shoulders, [the reference to her shoulders seems too much – the wind blowing her hair generates enough visual] Malia glanced downward, her voice soft. “I did.”

Sara tilted her head. “You don’t sound too happy about it. What’s up?”

Malia’s eye twitched. [as in a ‘tic’?] “I’m thrilled to have an environmental interior designer job. None too soon, with my college bills soaring and cash dwindling.” She drew in a breath. “But there’s a new manager. He said my designing is for the interior. [this tripped me up, I don’t know what this means] No environmental concerns. If there’s a sacred area, it’s desecrated. [this is a leap I couldn’t follow – what were her expectations? Was she supposed to guard against such desecration?] I guess profit comes first. Yet mainland corporate accepted my environmental credentials for the position. [assumption of knowledge here—again, what did she expect the job to entail? How has that changed?] My gut says something’s shifted all of a sudden. [more confusion – this implies nefariousness, yet haven’t a clue what seems that way to her] So now it’s choosing a paycheck and disrespecting Hawaiian values [this could be a core or continuing conflict] or not. I’ll check into it soon.”

“For starters, doesn’t he realize there’s even a law against billboards in Hawaii for aesthetic reasons? Can you work for such a development company?”

Malia rubbed the knot in her neck. “Maybe I’ll check with corporate HQ if necessary, but I know the manger wouldn’t like it. He might consider it insubordination. I’m on probation. I need work and it took forever to get this job.” [we need to know why she would take this risk]

Revision 1

Something wasn’t right in their voices But the messages Malia Hudson received from those phone calls didn’t disclose specific problems or complaints. What a distinct difference from yesterday’s upbeat calls. She bit the inside of her lip and tapped a pencil eraser against the notepad on the table. What did it mean? She’d check with Sara.

A glance out the second-story window from downtown Kahului at the serene ocean with the lush, mountains beyond conflicted with the peaceful demonstrators’ wariness she’d sensed from the calls. Her instinct didn’t lie.

The few workers present in the Office of Maui Relations conveyed a subdued atmosphere, too. No lively chatter today. Trouble looming against the local people?

Malia grabbed the notepad to leave for Sara’s cubicle, but her old roommate wound her way through the office area amongst a few sparse tables and chairs. The OMR had few funds and didn’t require expensive d├ęcor. Instead, they focused on human rights and legal land use, thank heavens.

Sara tossed her long, black hair behind her shoulders when she stepped in front of Malia’s table. “Thanks for volunteering these past few days. Any new information?”

“I’ll say.” Malia rubbed the back of her neck to ease the knot forming. “I was about to make my way to your cubicle. A few peaceful protesters checked in with me. There was something hidden in their voices. They didn’t have much to say, but I recorded their names and took notes for your review.” She shoved the remarks toward Sara. “What’s going on? And where is everybody today?”

Original (Here's the full post for those interested)

Moana’s embarked on her long-awaited chance today. It must work out for her. Under an ominous sky, she rushed across the Wailea hotel parking lot, entered the building and stepped into the office on the right side of the hall as instructed.

Muscles taut, she smoothed her pale, blue skirt and faced the receptionist. “I’m Moana Hudson, here for a meeting with Carter Stone.”

The young, dark-haired receptionist stood. “Please follow me.”

First impressions meant a lot, especially since she had a thirty-day probationary period to prove herself for the position. Moana drew in a deep breath as the receptionist led her into architect Carter Stone’s office.

“Mr. Stone, this is Miss Hudson.” The receptionist left the room.

He stood. The tall, handsome man captivated her for a second. Was it his dark blond hair combed perfectly in place, or the cobalt blue eyes which might’ve sensed her unease?

Carter extended a hand. “Welcome. Please have a seat, Miss Hudson.”

His kind demeanor eased the tension in her neck as she sat in the leather chair in front of his desk.

“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” Too desperate? With no past job experience, if she didn’t do well in this position it could affect her future career, to say nothing of her dwindling financial situation.

Note:
 I’ve included all three iterations of this opening because I believe it’s worth seeing this author’s explorations, not to critique all three, but just to share the idea that approaches to any opening can vary wildly – and all will have some good points. First-page pressure is a real ‘thing’ and can result in stiff writing, material that comes too soon or buries the lead, producing a scene that is so standalone it disengages from the story, and many other pencil-breaking (or keyboard pounding) situations. I appreciate this author’s determination and sense of adventure.

Questions:

1. What writing aspects are most needed to add/delete from this scene? (i.e. More showing, more intriguing issue/problem to start, action, pacing, clearer storyline? etc.)


In reading and re-reading this opening, my interest caught on the first line, then the voice cracking, the lowered gaze, and the twitching eye. These all signaled to me that the character, Malia, was upset and had contacted her old (assumed) friend to talk about whatever had caused the upset. The first line also demanded some kind of pretty immediate explanation. Overall, I expected Malia to spill her guts to her old roommate, Sara, who apparently is the best person to talk to about the particular problem.

Instead of that happening though, Sara asks about the job interview the reader knows nothing about. This means the job and the interview for it are still an important part of the story. With that in mind, I suggest framing this scene a bit more. I really like the first line, but assumed it was internal thought. If that stays, then consider keeping us in her head as she sees Sara, sitting at a picnic table in Maui Park, waiting for Malia. You can show her relief/reaction to Sara being there – good ol’ Sara – she knew she could count on her to come. She’d know what to do…

This little bit of framing let’s readers immediately imagine that Malia has had a rough/weird day (surreal sets it), she has called an old friend to meet her, she’s happy/relieved the old friend showed up, and this old friend might also be the only one Malia trusts with the problem she has.

Currently, that opening paragraph is a bit jumbled in staging, but that’s not the end of the world. With the minimal framing in place, you would open with a troubled Malia, who is relieved to see Sara, who will ‘know what to do…’, and can show the two greeting one another and sitting at the picnic table – or walking down the beach or the path or across a meadow.

Having Malia’s voice crack in her greeting is fine, but I don’t know why this is happening. Is she so upset that she’s near tears? Or is she that happy to see Sara? There are possible hints here that their relationship was very close, perhaps like the sister Malia never had?

Sara then welcomes our assumed protagonist home. This made me wonder if Malia had been a long time gone from the islands or if it had just been a long time since she had lived on Maui. These are curious questions, not confusion, so are just tucked away, waiting for answers or confirmations.

Overall, Malia seems subdued, unhappy – but is she?

I want to know, but the dialogue that follows is an odd info-dump that floats on assumed knowledge regarding the job. There are some conflicts created due to a lack of knowledge about Malia, the character, and who she is.

Sara’s welcome home greeting indicates Malia hasn’t been around her for some time, but this dialogue seems to indicate that Sara knows what has been going on with Malia. The small issues here can be amended by clarifying the status of their relationship. Something simple: “I’m glad you could meet me and thanks again for listening earlier when I called.” This is just a rough example, of course, but shows how easily you can establish how much Sara knows and that they have had some sort of conversation previously about the job interview and Malia returning to Maui.

Readers chime in here – but I always feel that opening with dialogue can be tricky, as you’re asking readers to jump in with both feet with little and/or no prep. The dialogue needs to be intriguing and lead to/into an immediate problem/inciting event, while piling on hints to some deeper consequences. Since this is a romantic tale, none of this has to be earth-shattering, but does need to be very important to the characters involved.

In that sense, you’ve done a good job of making it clear there are some ethical problems facing Malia, as well as her feeling she will be functioning at the wrong level on the project (which is as yet unknown). Her ethics didn’t keep her from taking the job, so you have the compromise to work with of allowing financial needs to overbear her values/beliefs/training.

This latter issue is tailor-made for conflict on several levels. Malia is already conflicted about taking the job, so readers will be looking forward to how this conflict further affects her life – or chance at love.

The Sara character seems to be the mentor/older sister/practical best friend, perhaps who has been deeply involved with environmental law on a professional or impassioned community leader level.

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

2. What does/doesn’t work with this scene?

Good promise in the first bits, as there is potential to be immediately immersed in Malia’s problem with her new job. Her values are presented well enough to build on, and with a small amount of work, you’ll have her relationship with Sara established without any telling or info-dumps.

The info-dump about the new job is a little disjointed, feeling like you’re trying to get a lot crammed into one breathless semi-rant. If this was presented as a rant, it might be stronger. This would put a different slant on Malia’s comments about something feeling like it shifted and checking things out with corporate later, no matter the risk. A semi-rant shows emotion, frustration, and Malia’s passion about her values. A semi-rant allows you to show her rebellious side while recognizing the constraints of consequence.

Have you considered having her decline the job, stating her concerns about her proposed position, as presented by the ‘new’ manager (I want to know why this is important, that he’s ‘new’), and then being upset because she really needs the job – then contacts Sara to fuss over her decision? She could be pursued by corporate HQ, when they find out she turned their offer down, and the one who delivers the message to reconsider is her true love? 

(Here's more on Infodumps Through Dialogue: Your Words Are Dead to Me)

You have a good beginning foundation here to present Malia, Sara, and her first obstacle/conflict. Her environmental values are the platform she operates upon and makes decisions by. This commitment to aesthetic and environmental concerns should provide rich fodder for your story.

Good luck – and don’t toss out your original or Rev 1, as they are the history of your story.

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

6 comments:

  1. Thank you, Marie for the most helpful critique!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thought I recognized the setting from a previous submission, so thanks for including previous iterations. If I had one gut-instinct reaction to the submission it is that author is perhaps too timidly introducing the tension on this first page. The "I'm worried about my job" tension is clear. What is not coming off the page, partly due to confusion, is tension about the fact that there may be some wrong doing in the company--that this is more than just "this job isn't what I thought it would be."

    I know nothing about interior design, environmental or otherwise. As a reader reading the 5th paragraph, I perk up because I begin to see that AHA! There is the start of some conflict. However, the paragraph loses steam because: 1) the potential conflict is told in a casual manner (I'd rather see her growing suspicious while at work--discovering things that don't seem legal) and 2) is a bit confusing--ie. it's very vague to say "I'll check into it soon." -- what does that mean in this context? That has about the same urgency as "I gotta remember to get a gallon of milk on the way home". And what is the significance to the story of opening the book with her telling Sara, specifically? By that I mean, is this just casual chit-chat and info giving to the reader to start the story, or are we starting with her talking to Sara because it has definite impact to jumpstart the story. If Sara is, as a previous iteration seemed to imply, working in a job that has potential to add to the tension or conflict, maybe make that obvious here.

    And I'm unclear about the implications regarding her manager. Does she suspect him of wrong-doing? Or is he just toeing the line and doing what he's told? This is very vague.

    Back to paragraph one: I would vote to remove "What a surreal day" and make us FEEL that it is surreal.

    Writing first pages is hard. I can tell you have great potential for intrigue with this story and a lot of great ideas in developing the conflict that will be great fun to read. It's just a matter of finding that right first page combination that introduces us to the key characters and a clear indication of the tension or problem of the story. Thanks for submitting!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, this has a lot of potential conflict that can carry the scene. If it's combed through carefully.

    Dialog might be the most efficient, nimble tool there is for writing, because there's nothing to stop people from just *saying* what's next to deal with. That can make it perfect for a first scene... but when it is, that makes it all the more important to lay it out just right.

    Look at this as a set of layers of information. What does each thing Malia reveals add onto the previous one as a "and that means (problem)" or "that's why (problem) seems so entrenched" or "this part of (problem) gets a reaction from me"? If you had to present most of this in five tiny sentences, what would you say? What if you had two sentences, or ten?

    It's that flow of revelations building on each other that's the spine of this scene. It has to build SUSPENSE, by "hooking" us into Malia's problem from the first isolated hint (that she got the job but is strangely unhappy about it?), and then giving the background in a way that explains it while deepening our interest.

    You've put some thought into the flow of this, with the different moments that you show the women's faces or voices shifting to reflect what happens. That's good to have, but it works best when the substance of the scene is planned out for suspense too.

    Almost all of the meat of this scene is in Paragraph 5. That's a big chunk of explanation, handed to us all at once. What ways could you break it down so we appreciate each step, especially contrasts you could find like "I really thought I could... but here's why it won't let me."

    Maybe the biggest opportunity here is the contrast between Malia and Sara as people. Say Malia is a strong, determined woman who tries to do everything herself -- she might act as if none of this is serious, and Sara would have to tease the whole truth out of her. Or if Malia's under a lot of stress, she might hold it in but suddenly have it pouring out. Is Sara as a person more experienced, more busy, or more lighthearted than Malia, and how would that reshape the flow of how they talk this over? What that shows might make a stronger impression than the plot itself.

    Right now it's not fully clear that Malia is the protagonist. She's certainly the one with the problem, but we're so little inside her head that this scene could actually become Sara stepping up as her equal partner in dealing with this, or taking over, or being a "Watson" who tells the story by watching Malia deal with it. Beginning with "What a surreal day" without saying who's thinking it also muddies that.

    So I'd say, think hard about what your building blocks of information are. How can you lay them out to hook the reader with the first line's sense that There's A Problem, and then arrange them to make the most of each point about that problem -- and the characters? It's more work than most scenes need, but this is your *first* scene, and it can sell your whole book just by how Malia and Sara go through this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can't shake the feeling that this story, which is full of potential, is starting too late. Yes, I know, a story should start with action, but it's choosing that perfect moment that's important. It's clear that much has happened already or the conversation presented here wouldn't be happening.

    Let me put it this way. With the first line of the first chapter at least two things are happening. The plot is moving forward. The protagonist's arc is moving forward. The problem here is that the plot is racing ahead of the arc. In the paragraphs that follow the arc is struggling to catch up. Backstory is being shoved into the dialogue and it doesn't feel natural. Meanwhile, the reader is thinking, "Okay, this is all well and good, but who are these characters? Why should I care?"

    I agree with BK above. Back up to when the suspicions were forming. Let us see the tension and conflict evolve instead of telling us in a rush that it's happened. Amidst that growing tension and conflict we'll also have the opportunity to get to know the protagonist and her friend.

    I've written lots of opening scenes, far more of them than stories. This is hard, it's really hard. In one case I did exactly what I'm suggesting here and it saved the opening, which was spewing backstory in an effort to catch the reader up. So, there's my suggestion. Save what you have (you'll want it no matter what). Step back. Try exploring an earlier scene and see how it feels. Instead of opening with the bombshell exploding, begin with the moment she realizes it exists. You have a great story on your hands, I can tell. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think Christina nailed it - this scene does not seem like an opening to me either. It feels as if we are in the middle of a subsequent scene. That's a good thing because it means that there is a lot to work with -

    I would also suggest being clear on what the protagonist wants - does she simply want a job? Money? or is her passion to save the environment? I can see this scene being several chapters in - after she's witnessed something wrong and needs to make a decision which way to go with it -

    I see it is a romance suspense - so I'm guessing their is a romantic partner somewhere here? How does he/she fit in? Suspense would lead me to believe she will let her beliefs overrule her need for a job and money and this might lead to danger - I like that.

    Opening with a scene that lets us see how much she needs this job (a family member she is taking care of, rent overdue, etc) will help land this conversation. One thing I would also say is there is a lot of information dumped into the conversation. I think that needs to be trimmed and perhaps shown in early scenes.

    Good luck with trying some other ideas and realize that revision sometimes means trying something completely different - even if you don't use it, you might discover different ideas and plot lines from the exercise.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Regarding "this is a leap I couldn’t follow – what were her expectations? Was she supposed to guard against such desecration?", to me it was pretty obvious that her expectations were that we don't destroy indigenous people's sacred sites... Similarly, the reason she would take the risk of being sacked is because what the company is proposing is bad and wrong! Do I just know more about Hawaii / racism / indigenous rights than the expected reader that Maria has in mind? I really don't think I know that much, but I guess I live in a bit of a bubble. The problem with explaining all that is that it becomes a bit 'As you know, Sara...', doesn't it?

    ReplyDelete