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Saturday, September 5

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Developing POV in an Opening Scene

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 September 26.

This week’s questions:

1. What does/doesn’t work with this as an opening scene?

2. Does how the character feels come across?

3. Does it have a good enough hook to want to read more?

4. Does it show instead of tell?

Market/Genre: Inspirational Romantic Suspense

Note: This is the third pass for this submitter. If you’re curious to see how this has developed, here’s submission #1, and submission #2

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Malia Hudson stared at the office email on the laptop screen as if the words would change. Flagged as urgent from the new business manager, she read it again.
Do not begin your morning agenda. Wait for me in my office immediately this morning.
--Mr. Matthews
Her spine rattled. What the issue entailed, she had no idea. Not how she envisioned her first day on the job designing condos.

Scurrying out of her office, a fluttery sensation filled her abdomen. Heels clicked along the tile hallway until she entered through the open door of the man’s empty office.

Seated in a plush, leather chair in front of his desk, a toe tapped against the carpet. What could be so pressing on her first day at work? Or was something wrong?

Hands clammy, she splayed her fingers for a moment. A gaze out the window across the central valley revealed the red landscape near her mother’s sacred burial site, tucked in below the majesty of grandiose Haleakala̅ Crater. What a comforting sight to help ease her nerves. So great to return home to Maui and find a much-needed job. But the way the manager’s email read nagged at her, so unlike the welcome emails from the director and company architect.

Jerking upright as a door slammed behind her, Mr. Matthews ambled to his desk and plopped into his chair. Stout and balding, he wiped his sweaty forehead with his hand and glanced at a sheet of paper.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Malia Hudson stared at the office email on the laptop screen [as if the words would change.] I like “words would change” but the “as if” feels off. I get the gist of what it’s trying to say, but it’s not getting the right emotion across. She’s hoping they will, correct? Flagged as urgent from the new business manager, she read it again.
Do not begin your morning agenda. Wait for me in my office immediately this morning.
--Mr. Matthews
Her spine rattled. What the issue entailed, she had no idea. Not how she envisioned [her first day on the job designing condos.] Nice way to establish what she does and where she is

[Scurrying out of her office, a fluttery sensation [filled her abdomen.]] I wanted a line of internalization here to further clue me into who she is and how she feels, as well as what she might be worried about. Also, reads like her abdomen scurried Heels clicked along the tile hallway until she entered through the open door of the man’s empty office.

[Seated in a plush, leather chair in front of his desk, a toe tapped against the carpet.] Sounds like a toe is seated. It’s also not clear this is her, as I never saw her sit down [What could be so pressing on her first day at work? Or was something wrong?] Perhaps move this up to where she feels nervous. Also, this information has already been established, so while this reinforces these fears and questions, it’s a missed opportunity to show something new about her

[Hands clammy, she splayed her fingers for a moment.] There’s nothing of Malia in this. It’s detached [A gaze] This also pushes it outside her head. But simple “She gazed” puts it back in out the window across the central valley revealed the red landscape near her mother’s sacred burial site, tucked in below the majesty of grandiose Haleakala̅ Crater. [What a comforting sight to help ease her nerves.] Perhaps just show signs of someone relaxing [So great to return home to Maui and find a much-needed job.] odd thought since she might be getting fired [But the way the manager’s email read nagged at her, so unlike the welcome emails from the director and company architect.] Perhaps move this earlier when she’s reading the email, or just after when she’s worrying about it. That would help establish her fear and why she's worried, which will help raise the tension

[Jerking upright as a door slammed behind her, Mr. Matthews ambled to his desk and plopped into his chair.] be wary of your sentence structure. This is the fourth time in a row this same structure has opened a paragraph. It also shows Malia reacting before readers see what she’s reacting to. How does she know it’s him? Has she met him? Stout and balding, he wiped his sweaty forehead with his hand and glanced at a sheet of paper.

The Questions:

1. What does/doesn’t work with this as an opening scene?


I think the bones of this are good, but it’s not taking advantage of them just yet.

What’s working for me:

There’s a hook with the email suggesting something is wrong and that she might be getting fired.

Malia has just started a new, much-needed job and now that might be in jeopardy, which suggests some stakes. Losing this job would be bad, even if I don’t yet know the specifics as to why.

I get a sense of the setting with “her first day on the job designing condos” and the glimpse out the window at the Crater, and I know this is Malia’s home.

I meet Matthews, whose first impression isn’t good—sending unfriendly emails, slamming doors, ignoring her—which adds to the fear that whatever this is is bad.

These are all the right pieces to craft a situation with plenty of story questions that pique my interest. What is the email about? What is Malia’s financial situation, and what would happen if she lost this job? What changed about the job that went from friendly people to rude?

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

What isn’t working for me:

I’m feeling detached from Malia because she’s not “in” her story yet. And by that I mean things are phrased as the author describing the scene, not Malia living it. There’s not a strong sense of her point of view yet. Let’s analyze a few lines:
Scurrying out of her office, a fluttery sensation filled her abdomen.
This reads as though her abdomen is doing the scurrying. There are two different actions here: She scurried out of her office. A fluttery sensation filled her abdomen. Something else is causing the sensation (her worry about the email), but this reads as though the scurry is causing it.

Think about what Malia is doing and feeling. She scurried out of her office, and a fluttery sensation filled her abdomen.

This is also an excellent moment to insert the reasons for that flutter, and show her internal thoughts. That puts readers in her head and emotions. They see her act (scurry), feel (fluttery) and then think (What could be so pressing?).
Heels clicked along the tile hallway until she entered through the open door of the man’s empty office.
I love the sense of her going from tile to carpet here. But this is a description of her heels, not Malia walking. If I was already solid in her POV this would read fine, but it’s a bit detached if I’m not.

This is also a great opportunity and lead-in to describe the office and the view out the window. Walking into a new setting naturally leads to “Wow, what a view…” or the like, which allows her to show readers the Crater and landscape. It also lets you describe the office, and a chance for Malia to think about Matthews and let readers know what she knows about him. Has she met him? Does she looks for clues she can see in his office? Is there anything she notices about the office that sets up a picture of Matthews for readers before he walks in?

As is, this skips right over all that and moves to Malia already being seated, though it’s not clear she sat.
Seated in a plush, leather chair in front of his desk, a toe tapped against the carpet.
This reads as if the toe was seated. Malia’s body parts are described as if they were separate from her, so I lose all sense of Malia. This is easy to fix though—just phrase it as what Malia does: Malia sat in a plush, leather chair in front of his desk. [internal thought to show her nervousness and set up why she’d tap her toe next] Her toe tapped against the carpet.

This also helps eliminate the repetitious sentence structure. A high number of sentence in this snippet have the same "Something something, something something" structure.
What could be so pressing on her first day at work? Or was something wrong?
There’s nothing wrong with this internalization, and it does indeed show what Malia is worrying about. However, these thoughts have already been established, so readers don’t learn anything new here. When you’re trying to fit as much as you can into 250 words, you don’t want to waste any opportunities. What Malia worries about is an opportunity to build on the questions you’ve already put in the reader’s mind.

What specific things could Malia worry about that would tell readers a little more about her, the setting, or the situation?
Hands clammy, she splayed her fingers for a moment.
This is like the heels line above. It’s fine if I’m in Malia’s head already, but the focus is on her hands and fingers, not her, so I feel detached again.
A gaze out the window across the central valley revealed the red landscape near her mother’s sacred burial site, tucked in below the majesty of grandiose Haleakala̅ Crater.
This says what her gaze revealed, it doesn’t show her gazing out the window and seeing something. This is another easy fix: She gazed out the window across the central valley. Red [landscape—use some specific details of what this looks like] near her mother’s sacred burial site, lay tucked in below the majesty of grandiose Haleakala̅ Crater.
What a comforting sight to help ease her nerves. So great to return home to Maui and find a much-needed job.
This doesn’t feel like natural thoughts to me considering she’s so nervous her hands are clammy. It’s also odd things to think if she’s worried she’s about to get fired. The information here is another good bit for readers to know (she just moved home, she needs this job), so perhaps phrase it in a way that builds on her being nervous and worried she’s about to lose her job.

(Here’s more on Choosing the Right Words for the Scene: Subtle Changes Can Make a Difference)

2. Does how the character feels come across?

I know she’s nervous, and that’s all I need to know at this point. The trouble here is that I don’t get a sense of her due to the detached nature of the narrative. But that will vanish if you shift things more in her head and POV.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

3. Does it have a good enough hook to want to read more?

Yes. Something is about to happen, and all signs point to something bad. But it could also be something good, which will surprise Malia and readers and continue to draw readers in.

But for readers to care abut this hook, they need to care about Malia, which is why getting more of her into this is so important.

(Here’s more on You Get One Page to Hook a Reader. Yes, Really.)

4. Does it show instead of tell?

Yes. Some things feel a little tellish because of the detached POV, but that will change if Malia’s POV is tightened.

(Here’s more on Keeping Your Distance: How Narrative Distance Works in Your Novel)

Overall, this has all the right pieces in mostly the right places, it just needs more of Malia in it. You want her acting and thinking, not her body parts. Show what she’s doing and feeling and use more pronouns so she’s the subject of the sentences. The framework is good, just show it through Malia’s eyes.

This author has been revising this for a while now, and it's easy to get frustrated when revising so often. Despite my comments, I really do think this is just about there. The hard parts are solid--the right opening scene and the hook. Now it's just a matter of developing the character side a bit more, and it's clear where that can happen. Opening scenes are hard, so don't get discouraged if it takes a few passes to get it working. Even the pros go through this (grin). For example, I'm revising right now as well, and I rewrote my current WIP opening five times. You'll get there.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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5 comments:

  1. Before we can feel for Malia, we need to have a sense of who she is, what she wants, and why. Like Janice said, without being attached to Malia, her consequences don't carry much meaning. What is driving Malia? It has to be something meaningful enough for the reader to care. We get a hint of this in "her much needed job" but why? The money is important because of--(it can't just be money).

    I'm not much for body parts showing emotion, it is a bit cliche and there are much stronger ways to show these emotions. Spine rattling, abdomen fluttering, hands clammy have all been done many times. How can the author take those feeling and turn them into something that also reveals parts of Malia's apprehension? To that point, what is paragraph three and four telling us other than she's nervous. If we had some internalization here such as her boss finding out something bad about her past employment, a lie on her resume, etc., we now have the stakes rising for Malia. These two paragraphs are where we can fall for the reader - she lied because she needs to support her young brother, she got fired for testifying against her boss for sexual harassment and this boss thinks she is going to be trouble, etc. Here is the perfect opportunity to reveal something that shows her character and makes us want to root for Malia.

    I'm a little lost on the last two paragraphs. Is Mr. Matthews sitting, tapping a toe as she walks in? If yes, how does he slam the door behind her? I'm not sure that bringing in the mother's sacred burial site works at this very moment. It takes us out of the immediate conflict. Think of the words used in this sentence compared to the tone of the scene: sacred, tucked, majesty, grandiose, comforting, ease, great - those are really exactly the opposite of what this scene feels like. Often when I find a sentence or paragraph that is not working, I'll cut it and create a folder for "cut sentences" which I can then use later in the book.

    We have a great setting that can come out later- Hawaii. We have a conflict, that we don't yet know about. We have a good protagonist that can easily be strengthened by giving her a solid desire (both internal and external), and Mr. Matthews who can be, might be, the antagonist.

    The reason Malia's desire is so important is because that is what will drive the plot and the story. It is that desire that will allow you to set up disappointments, obstacles, and allow Malia to grow and be a different person at the end of the book than she is now. I see her being scared and uncertain of herself now, and she has the ability to end as a strong, confident woman.

    Beginnings are often hard. I would also say write the story if you have not yet done so already. Through writing it, through figuring out Malia's desire, you will be able to mold this beginning to be exactly what it needs to be and write a terrific novel. Good luck!





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  2. This really is a good place to start, just on the warning that change is coming. And you use the space after it well: quick-ish mentions of what her job situation is, the senses of walking in, the "scenery" that sets up the industry/land conflict ahead, and then it begins.

    I agree, this leans a lot on sensations (both body and surroundings) and doesn't play them off of her reaction to it. Some of the strongest descriptions I know are made up of alternating what the character senses and what she does in reaction to that, so we see her interacting as a part of the world. Her splaying her fingers against clamminess would be more promising if it was her response to something unsettling.

    And this can also be part of our sense of Malia. First scenes need to anchor us in some basic thing about their character, so we immediately start caring about "struggling, hungry woman who still risked her job for principles" or "sensible peacemaker" or "firecracker" or whatever Malia is. I like the pacing of this scene getting us to the boss's office with a bit of time for background and mood, but you can also angle those to show us who Malia is.

    Your best bet might be to show her trying to plan. The center of a scene is always what a character's goal is in it, and right now that's to find out what the news is and minimize any damage to her. So the thing that might win us over most is to give her a quick but prominent thought (or better yet one followed by another) that shows her trying to get ahead of the possible problem -- and do it in the "most Malia way" you can think of. If she's a practical office worker at heart (for now), it might be a thought about how the company needs her too much to give her trouble; it she's more about emotion it might be an appealing way to master fear. Her look at the landscape is almost that already, so it could be perfect if Malia's center really is her heritage, and you tweak a couple of lines so the scene has more sense of building her worry and that look out the window being her strong answer.

    This is a well-positioned scene for walking us into the story. It would be best with another thread woven in, but that only takes a few words here and there to give this a whole extra dimension and truly grab us.

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  3. This new iteration, to me, shows progress in learning how to shape your character, getting in close. From previous iterations, I have felt your style - how you're translating the scene from your head - has remained the same. It's a bit distant, attempts to present little blocks of information. As Janice points out, you're not letting readers 'into' who Malia really is - could be she's not sure who she is right now.

    You can use this distance if you have it be her perspective. Perhaps this is how she absorbs the world around her, in little chunks of experience?

    When she enters the empty office and she looks out the window, this can be used as something she is drawn to, perhaps even walks toward the huge windows that frame a vista that touches her emotionally. This can be interpreted by showing her reaction, not just informing readers about what she sees, but showing that tears unbidden and unexpected fill her eyes. She's in the middle of an unknown situation, waiting in an intimidating office for a man she might not have met yet -- and she scared. So, seeing that vista might suddenly have her wishing her mom was still alive - wishing for her mom's advice or 'how would mom have handled this?', etc.

    I was also confused about the empty office and toe tapping, but I wanted to ask: is this who she is? Would she come into the empty office and immediately sit? Or would she be drawn to the window?

    Back to my impression of your style... you might want to consider trying to align your style with Malia's personality. Follow the wonderful advice you've received on this iteration, but also think about who Malia is -- to you. Right now, I see her as slightly fearful, dependent upon surface impressions (nice welcome emails), and not very secure in her own power. The offending email only says not to get started on her routine, but to come immediately to Mr. Matthews office. She seems to assume that this can only mean something bad -- but why? From that point on, she is expecting the worse. But I've no idea why. Is she a generally negative person? If so, give us some internal thoughts that showcase that attitude.

    I want to see her reasons for being fearful. She should be questioning what she might have done to warrant this demand from Matthews. Is she nearly running to get there? Do her heels sound ridiculously loud to her?

    Perhaps if you allow Malia to operate within your writing style or if you present her in bursts of reaction/internal thought, she will become more visible to readers.

    You have done some great experimenting and are dedicated to your story -- as Janice urged, don't get discouraged! Find Malia's core and set her free, eh? Good luck and have fun. :O)

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    1. p.s.: didn't proof this so pls pardon any bloops...

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  4. Thanks to all of you who critiqued my work! I feel I have learned and gained a lot from these three beginnings, and I couldn't have done it without you. In this case, words cannot say, say how blessed I feel.

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