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Saturday, August 8

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Developing an Opening Page

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 August 29.

This week’s questions:

1. Should I develop the main character before this segment or is this okay as a start of a story?

2. I have a hard time telling the difference between internalization and telling. Did I strike the right balance?

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The employee relations person rattled off the highlights of the paperwork I needed to sign to start the new job. The paperwork you half understand. Her voice echoed in the almost barren conference room.

“After we complete the background check, we’ll schedule the surgery to replace your implanted brain chip with the company AI chip,” she said.

“What?” I said while I tensed up. “I wasn’t told that in the interview.”

“It should have been mentioned. It’s here in the orientation package that you need to sign.”

“I need to think about this. I had some issues after the first implant with disorientation. Besides, I still owe money on that operation.” I heard my heartbeat getting louder.

“Sorry Nick. There’s nothing to think about. Unless you agree to have that chip replaced, you can’t work here. Since the project you’re going to work on is highly classified, the company cannot have you walking around with a foreign chip in your head with unknown capabilities.”

“That I understand.”

“Since we’ll be taking possession of the chip after surgery, the company will pay off your loan.”

“How long do I have to decide?” I asked as I sat there worrying if a defect in their chip caused Chris’s death.

She crossed her arms and gave me a stern look with her steel-blue eyes. “Normally this would end your employment here, but because of your level and the project need, I can give you until tomorrow at ten o’clock. The Team Lead wants to get the security clearance going as quickly as possible.”

“And if I don’t decide by tomorrow?” I adjusted my glasses and stared at the form.

“Then the offer goes to the other candidate we just turned down.”

I thought a moment and decided I needed to know what happened to my best friend who shouldn’t have died a few months ago. A college rival that grew into a trusted friend. I sighed. “Okay. I’ll sign it.”

I took the paper and signed my name as the pen shook in my hand. Inside I was screaming, ‘What are you doing?’

My Thoughts in Blue:

The employee relations person rattled off the highlights of the paperwork I needed to sign to start the new job. Her voice echoed in the almost [stronger without this qualifier-unless someone/thing important is in the room] barren conference room.

“After we complete the background check, we’ll schedule the surgery to replace your implanted [surgery implies the chip is implanted – you could amend to ‘current’, which implies this is a common occurrence in this world] brain chip with the company brain chip,” she said.

“What?” I leaned forward in the chair. “I wasn’t told that in the interview.”

“It should have been mentioned. It’s here in the orientation package that you need to sign.”

“I need to think about this. I had some issues after the first implant with disorientation. Besides, I still owe money on that operation.” I heard my heartbeat getting louder. [we can feel our heartbeat change, our diaphragm can spasm and feel like your heart squirming, but hearing happens in your ears, so that would be blood pressure, maybe throbbing of blood flow?]

“Sorry, Nick. There’s nothing to think about. Unless you agree to have your chip replaced, you can’t work here. The project you’re going to work on is highly classified. The company cannot have you walking around with a foreign chip in your head that might store and transmit sensitive information.

“That I understand.”

“Since we’ll be taking possession of the chip after surgery, the company will pay off your loan.” [assuming that a loan was necessary to have the current chip implanted? Or is it something else?]

“How long do I have to decide?” I asked as I worried that a defect in their chip caused Chris’s death. [curiosity here: worried is a bit weak -- does he think this is true or is he just suspicious? who is Chris? Is Nick getting the job a sleuthing plan?]

She crossed her arms and gave me a stern look with her steel-blue eyes. [might consider flipping this – eyes first, then stern look] “Normally, this would end your employment here, but because of your level [level of what? skill? education? This is an opportunity to expose something unusual about this character, like he’s a genius] and the project need, I can give you until tomorrow at ten o’clock. The Team Lead wants to get the security clearance going as quickly as possible.”

“And if I can’t decide by tomorrow?” I adjusted my glasses and stared at the form.

She started picking up the forms. [better flow here if this can be put together – he stares as she gathers]

“Then we’ll hire the other candidate we just turned down.”

I thought a moment and decided I needed to know what happened to my best friend, who shouldn’t have died a few months ago. A college rival that grew into a trusted friend. I sighed.

“Okay. I’ll sign it.”

I took the paper and signed my name as the pen shook in my hand. [I would flip this, shaking hand, signing, dropping the pen on the paper – opportunity to show his reaction to agreeing to sign]

Inside, I’m screaming, ‘What are you doing?’

The Questions:

1. Should I develop the main character before this segment or is this okay as a start of a story?


This is a slow start, to me, but other readers might be just fine with this soft start. [readers chime in please] I don’t mind a story that starts with dialogue either, which is often seen as a no-no, as long as you get me grounded throughout that dialogue, deeper and deeper, so I can connect emotionally. Internal thought helps in a dialogue opening, as a counterpoint to whatever is being expressed externally. This also allows readers to connect with how the protagonist feels.

This scene is conducted in white space, a barren conference room, which I also don’t mind – for the time being. After Nick commits, I will expect things to rapidly happen and the scene expand, possibly with a glut of actions, reactions, second thoughts, and increasing hints at creepy stuff (or Nick’s paranoia about creepy stuff).

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

I would look at this scene as a ‘back-door’ approach. In film, we might be brought top-down into a white space, maybe even white furniture (depending on what impression you wanted to make), hovering over these two characters, then circling and panning back to each as they spoke. In some eras, this might be intermingled where the focus is on the reaction of the person being spoken to…

On the page, you can draw the reader in with cues from the protagonist’s observations, comparisons, or conclusions. He’s under pressure, so what is happening with him? Is he sweating? Does he wish he hadn’t worn a jacket/sweater/suit? Does he fidget with something?

You hint that he’s here to find out about his friend’s death-by-chip, so what is he thinking this whole time? Does he have a plan already for his sleuthing? Does he balance taking this chance with theories or speculations about Chris’s death? What can you give the reader to inform them as to whether this story is about murder or tech intrigue or military secrets or … ?

Your other option, which many readers will prefer, is one that establishes Nick right away and his reason for taking a risk about Chris’s death. They were rivals before – sometimes rivals become very strong friends – were they working on a project or had Chris told Nick something he wasn’t supposed to? To frame this current scene, you can set up Nick personality, his position relative to Chris, an inciting incident (Chris dies), and something that triggers Nick’s need to find out what ‘really happened’.

This approach would be infinitely stronger, fun to write, and would draw readers in on the first page, several ways to approach such a start, depending upon how sharp a beginning you want.

Nick could hear about Chris’s death, have a usual reaction to the loss, then suddenly have an odd encounter or experience that he ties to his friend’s death, perhaps a belated document, recording or email reaches Nick? There are so many ways to set this story up before Nick is in this scene, and they all can be modified to achieve the intensity you want/need in this scene.

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake)

2. I have a hard time telling the difference between internalization and telling. Did I strike the right balance?

Pretty much – there’s not a whole lot going on here. The heartbeat hearing idea is off. I experienced tachycardia (very rapid heartbeat) once and swore I could hear my actual heartbeat, but no – I was feeling, not hearing. In your case, I would rather see a reaction by Nick or an inner thought describing or reacting to a heavy heartbeat.

The final line is internal thought, and just fine. It would be stronger if we had a build-up of fear-incited movements, showing his anxiety, questioning his own motives and speculations. 

(Here's more on Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?)

3. Does the dialogue sound natural and believable?

Yes. [readers chime in] Again, you can add believability through internal thoughts, physical reactions, gestures, etc. that enrich visualization. 

(Here's more on How to Subtly Boost Your Dialogue’s Power With Body Language)

4. Would you want to keep reading?

Yes. If this were the opening, I would have questions that needed answers, like right away… And if the last line has a build-up that explodes with his commitment and signing of the papers for the job, I will want to know what was next. But, as mentioned before, I will need the pace and influx of information to really be ramped up from here. That would be my expectation – I would want that act of commitment to be like opening Pandora’s box.

(Here's more on Are You Asking the Right Story Questions?)

Good luck with this – I know you like to experiment, and you have an interesting beginning. Everybody loves a murder, maybe with some gov’t secrets and watching Nick walk into the unknown, all to right a possible wrong for his friend.

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. Thanks for the great suggestions. I'll try to rewrite parts of it and resubmit it at some point.
    Originally I thought of this as more Science Fiction until I read that Elon Musk, besides owning Tesla and SpaceX had started a company called Neuralink that has already implanted chips into 19 primates and is expected to announce the first human implantation on August 28th.Who knew?

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  2. I enjoyed the piece, but I would have liked starting off with seeing Nick walking into the building. Here, I'm thrown into a scene, not knowing the protagonist or where we are. I don't think it needs to be a long runway, but something showing us Nick's hesitation, concern, or determination and then some feeling of this building, this company. We want to be on Nick's side from the very beginning.

    We have a good external motive - Nick wants to know what happened to his best friend. Thinking about the internal motive will be helpful - what would make Nick risk his life to find out what happened to his best friend? when he thinks "worrying if a defect in their chip caused Chris' death" that raises the stake way high for him - that internal desire needs to outweigh risking his life.

    I like the dialogue. I would look for another way to how tension other than "hearing my heartbeat getting louder" - I would classify that as cliche and would always recommend steering away from organ parts (heart beating, stomach fluttering etc)

    I love the story- a friend who died, a friend who was a rival, an already distrust of the chip and the company (Think Terminator - The Firm), the surrender of control. So much to work with!! There's a bunch of BLACK MIRROR episodes with brain chip themes, so great timing with the concept. Not happy to hear anyone testing on primates, but we know this technology is coming. Good luck to the writer - great material and lots to work with! Can't wait to read it.

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    1. I like that as a start. I hadn't thought about that. There's a lot more that I could do with showing Nick's personality, and problems, before being put on the spot. Thank you.

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  3. This is a great place to start the story. Setting up for a job that asks for such an unsettling demand --wait, everyone's already chipped anyway, what a world-- and the chip itself is key to the mystery. Most of all, it's all "putting Nick on the spot" with one specific choice: does he risk taking the job and the chip or not? And a specific choice or issue is exactly what hooks the reader into a first scene so they can have time to learn the rest.

    There are other places you could start the story, but I think this one's perfect.

    You could do more to build on that focus, though. Could you make the very first line "Then you'll have the surgery to replace..."? and immediately have Nick hesitate? That nails the essence of this and starts filling us in on what the chip could mean. (Or you could still have Nick taking a paragraph or so thinking about the interview before this comes out, but you'd want to show he's on edge. Or even begin that with something ominous like "This interview seemed like the easy part. I smiled and nodded and tried not to think about Chris's death. And then--"

    The tricky part is slipping in the background about Chris without slowing the scene down. "worrying if a defect in their chip caused Chris's death" isn't as interesting as him thinking *Sounds great, unless it* was *something in their chips that killed Chris.* And, how soon do you want to mention both Chris's death and the fact that Nick is really here to find out about it? which should come first? do you want to hint at one before you reveal it? What he reveals here is the whole other half of the scene, so you want it to be perfect in how it's paced through the rest and how it's phrased.

    Note, my example above would be in italics, to mark it slipping into present-tense "immediate thought" mode. Those can be be perfect tool for important thoughts during a busy scene, though they shouldn't be used for everything.

    This looks like a solid story, and an even better choice for its starting moment. Just keep a closer eye on what makes it the right start, and keep that in focus all through this. Yum!

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  4. The main problem that I had with this story start, and the reason that I asked the first question that I did, is I didn't give any sense of the person Nick was, his like, what he looked like, or anything before he got hit with the decision.
    When I've read books like Janice's The Shifter, that she uses in her column, and many other books over the years, I can see that person making the decision that he or she does. I don't think I have that feeling here yet.
    I respect your opinion because you've giving me great advice on other submissions that I've made. I'll have to think about it.

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  5. Sasha Anderson8/09/2020 9:24 AM

    I agree with Ken Hughes that this is a great place to start - I think trying to go back and start before Chris's death is unnecessary, and risks adding in a lot of the stuff that we're often told to take out ('start as late as possible' etc), and I definitely don't think it would make it 'infinitely stronger'. I have no problem being expected to figure things out as I go along - in fact, I'd cut the lines about who Chris was to Nick, because to me they sound very 'explainy'.

    I would mention Nick's name earlier if at all possible (probably in the other person's dialogue) - I can't pin down why, but I was imagining a woman, so I was momentarily thrown. If you want to develop Nick's character more in this scene, there's plenty of space to add thoughts between the dialogue.

    Maria - the loan was mentioned a couple of paragraphs earlier. Also, I don't understand why you've changed the last sentence to present tense?

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    1. The only thing I was thinking of was to create a scene at Chris's girlfriend's apartment, after Chris's death, which would put a little background and identity to Nick and Chris's girlfriend explaining the changes she saw in Chris before his death, all leading back to the company. This might give more logic to Nick agreeing to the chip exchange and I could bring out more about Nick and his personality.

      It doesn't have to be a long scene. It hit me after Lynne Gobioff made the comment about not knowing him, which is what I felt.

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