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Saturday, October 24

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Setting Up the Mystery in a First 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 November 14.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opener hook the reader with tension, place and a sense of impending danger?

2. Is the plot set up sufficiently?

3. Is it too tight?

Market/Genre: Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: The plot is the kidnapping of the child by young woman who to all appearances is benign, perhaps even a little in need of mothering herself. The child will be found by the sleuthing of dedicated quilters, infusing the action and characters with the culture of quilting and related creativity and women’s relationships. The timeline is over the week-long course of the hurricane and its aftermath, opening with the evacuation and closing as people leave shelters and come back to examine what’s left of their vacation homes.

I hope that this could be the first novel of a series that uses quilting and quilters to look at women’s relationships, challenges and creativity from a variety of angles…kind of as though Chris Bohjalian writ in patchwork.

“Is this yours?”

Erin squinted into the sun and into the fly-eye sunglasses of the woman standing over her.

She shifted her phone from the salt-weathered step she was sitting on into the pocket of her shorts while adjusting her straw hat with her other hand.

“This what?” she asked.

The Carolina sun was in full glare, the waves high and strong, the wind brisk ahead of the hurricane due to land within a few hours. Yesterday, the beach had been studded with late-season holidayers. Then, the abrupt shift as Hurricane Albert slingshotted in their direction, thanks to Puerto Rico. Evacuate immediately, the September vacationers were told. Umbrellas folded into spears, towels rolled into knapsacks, the visitors streamed out. She’d passed them by the hundreds on her way in.

“This.” The woman lifted her arm and raised the little hand she held. The hand was attached to a tiny, plump arm and the arm to a tiny, plump person wearing white baseball cap, an orange onesie bathing suit and clutching a red, white and blue quilt.

The toddler blinked.

“There you are,” Erin said. “Are you thirsty?” She held out a half-empty bottle of lukewarm water.

The child grabbed it with both hands, the quilt dropping into the sand, and gulped.

The woman took a step back.

“Pay closer attention,” she said. “I found her in that grass over there.” She pointed down the beach. It was nearly deserted. Above the waves, the only sound was hammering, as plywood was fixed over windows and doors. Far to the south, a tiny knot of people had gathered.

“You’re right. Thanks,” said Erin. She patted the child’s head and drew it closer.

---- 250 words ----

The woman turned as she backed away. “Stay safe on your way out,” she said. She headed south.

Erin slid her hands under the toddler’s armpits and stood, hoisting it in the same motion.

“Blankie,” said the baby, dropping the water bottle and reaching.

Erin swooped and grabbed the patriotic blankie and hunched over the child, trotted around the wooden steps of the raised beach house, under its stilts hidden from the beach, to her car.

She rolled the quilt around the child and settled her into the back seat, strapping the belt around the thick cushion.

The child squirmed and started to cry. Her face pulled into a pucker of protest. “Mommy!” she cried. “Mommy!”

“Shhhhh,” Erin said. She slammed the car door. Someone on the beach was calling. She heard the fear but not the words. Another, higher voice, twisting around the first, like a feral kite

Erin put the car in reverse and eased out of the narrow spot between the stilts.

“Mommy!” the child wailed.

Erin squealed to a stop and glanced over her shoulder at the child, whose face was red and wet. “I’m your mommy now,” she said, and she shifted into drive and headed down the street.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Semi-disclaimer: My sis-in-law is a quilter, my mom was a quilter, I love quilts. I am therefore biased about quilters and am tickled at the idea of sleuthing quilters.

“Is this yours?”

Erin squinted into the sun and into the fly-eye sunglasses [have to admit I don’t know what this means – are the lenses reflective iridescent green?] of the woman standing over her.

She shifted her phone from the salt-weathered step she was sitting on into the pocket of her shorts while adjusting her straw hat with her other hand. [this struck me as an interruption, suggest rewriting to shorten and moving it after her dialogue]

“This what?” she asked, shifting her position on the salt-weathered step to stick her phone into her shorts pocket, then adjusting her straw hat against the glare of the Carolina sun. (very rough example)

The Carolina sun was in full glare, the waves high and strong, the wind brisk ahead of the hurricane due to land within a few hours. Yesterday, the beach had been studded [this gave me the image of just a sprinkling of people, is that correct?] with late season holidayers. [I get this, but it isn’t a word, you could use ‘holidaymakers’] Then, the abrupt shift as Hurricane Albert sling-shotted in their direction, thanks to Puerto Rico. [I would like a comparison with ‘then’ to clarify timing and presenting Hurricane Albert first, then ‘the abrupt shift’] Evacuate immediately, the September vacationers were told. Umbrellas folded into spears, towels rolled into knapsacks, the visitors streamed out. She’d passed them by the hundreds on her way in. [nice] [overall, this paragraph was fine, but again, it’s interrupting dialogue, not promoting it. I would like to see Erin being surprised perhaps by this contact, since yesterday, the beach was full of late season vacationers and today it was nearly empty, due to Hurricane Albert, which had been deflected this direction due to a nasty run-in with Puerto Rico. – pack all this into a couple-three sentences, then the dialogue can pop back into the opening.]

“This.” The woman lifted her arm and raised the little hand she held. The hand was attached to a tiny, plump arm and the arm to a tiny, plump person wearing a white baseball cap, an orange onesie [this makes me visualize a child between one and two, is that correct?] bathing suit and clutching a red, white, and blue quilt.

The toddler blinked.

“There you are,” [this struck me as odd – most mothers would be strongly reacting to the idea that their toddler wandered off] Erin said. “Are you thirsty?” She held out a half-empty bottle of lukewarm water.

The child grabbed it with both hands, the quilt dropping onto the sand, and gulped. [I know what this infers, but it still feels unfinished]

The woman took a step back.

“Pay closer attention,” she said. “I found her in that grass over there.” She pointed down the beach. It was nearly deserted. Above the waves, the only sound was hammering, as plywood was fixed over windows and doors. Far to the south, a tiny knot of people had gathered. [This made me curious, back cover copy might have supported the kidnapping idea, so this sentence would make me wonder if this was a search party for the child]

“You’re right. [this also seems odd to say as I don’t know what ‘wrong’ it refers to – a mom might be grateful but not take being admonished by a stranger] Thanks,” said Erin. She patted the child’s head and drew it closer. [I would flip this and add the child’s gender, so he/she isn’t an ‘it’ – unless you intended to have ‘it’ lend distance (creepy Erin and unknown child)]

---- 250 words ----

[at this point, I have no feeling of danger or mystery and though the few things I noted above raised an eyebrow, it wasn’t enough to make me suspicious – curious a bit, maybe. Erin was coming to the beach instead of evacuating, so it’s easy to view her as a local, accustomed to hurricane season and coming to the beach to check out the incoming storm. I would keep reading, but only to search the next page for whatever the story was going to offer.

The things that struck me as odd, and noted above, could easily be made more pronounced by a question or reaction or comment from the woman who ‘rescued’ the kid. Her reaction could carry some weight –even if she just shook her head in disbelief at Erin’s lack of reaction. On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to show how people believe what they want to believe – the woman assumed Erin was the mother, literally delivering the child into being kidnapped. This aspect also helps the reader with the “I never would have thought she was a kidnapper” feeling. (grin)

The woman turned as she backed away. “Stay safe on your way out,[I would put the dialogue first, then tag with the movement. “Stay…,” the woman said as she turned and headed south.] she said. She headed south.

Erin slid her hands under the toddler’s armpits and stood, hoisting it in the same motion.

“Blankie,” said the baby, dropping the water bottle and reaching.

Erin swooped and grabbed the patriotic blankie and hunched over the child, trotted around the wooden steps of the raised beach house, under [past] its stilts hidden from the beach [this infers that the stilts are hidden from the beach – is it the car that’s hidden?] to her car.

She rolled [wrapped?] the quilt around the child and settled her into the back seat, strapping the seatbelt around the thick cushion.

The child squirmed and started to cry. Her face pulled into a pucker of protest. “Mommy!” she cried. “Mommy!”

“ShhhhhErin said. She slammed the car door shut. [we need to place Erin in the car]

Someone on the beach was calling. She heard the fear but not the words. Another, higher voice, twisted around the first like a feral kite.

Erin put the car in reverse and eased out of the narrow spot between the stilts.

“Mommy!” the child wailed.

Erin squealed to a stop and glanced over her shoulder at the child, whose face was red and wet.

“I’m your mommy now…” she said, and she Shifting into drive, she and headed down the street.

[+205]

The Questions:

1. Does this opener hook the reader with tension, place and a sense of impending danger?


Not quite yet (readers chime in), but everything is in place to do so. The hook for me is the last line of dialogue. The place/location was easy for me to envision, though I might suggest messing around with setting up the location earlier, like when she pockets her phone.

The sense of impending danger doesn’t quite happen, but the breadcrumbs are there to suggest that her snatching the kid may have been an action of opportunity, not a planned crime. The kind of ‘opportunity’ that an unbalanced mind might view as a ‘gift from God’, or some such thing.

After reading through this several times, I put together a scene that, in film, would be more obvious that something odd/untoward was afoot.

Mothers of toddlers, unless they are impaired in some way, usually have the invisible umbilical cord that tugs whenever their toddler exceeds their range. I believe this is when children learn their names, as Mom chases them through the house (or anywhere they both are), repeatedly calling out for them. The toddler who hides or actually goes into the ‘wild’ usually ramps up this calling of their name in louder terms and by more people than Mom. The ‘found’ child is greeted with lots of human hubbub and tears, etc.

In this scene, the toddler is found and Erin, the supposed mother, is completely calm, exhibiting no distress, offers the kid a drink, doesn’t hug ‘it’, and when ordered by the stranger to ‘pay more attention’, simply says: “You’re right…”.

This odd, non-reaction is noticeable, but without being reinforced by the stranger/rescuer as being odd (or at least frustrating to the woman), it could almost slip by unnoticed. I love the hints there but wonder if some reinforcement might initiate a point of suspicion that could then begin building into tension.

The mention of the tiny group to the south, then the stranger leaving and going south caused me to connect her, somehow, with that group. It was a curiosity, but nothing more.

When Erin leaves with the child, we still have no action of hers that strengthens the idea that this is her and her child leaving. The ‘hidden from the beach’ tidbit is good, but needs a rewrite to clarify what is hidden, the stilts or the car? This was confusing because I had to amend my view to include a beach where the houses on stilts have steps from the house right to the beach, no walk-ways or dunes to cross to the house – just boom – there’s the house.

Tension could be brought in if her movement to the car is shown as hurried or furtive, and when bundling up the child, have her actions perhaps be related to packaging something up and trussing it in place. Looking at the idea of pushing the ‘it’, the dehumanizing potential here. And when Erin hears voices, I would rather not just be told they exist, but have her react to them.

At this point, the voices were immediately connected to the tiny group to the south, the rescuer woman, and a quick speculation that unknown persons in the group to the south met up with her, frantically searching for their lost toddler, and she related her experience. They all charged to the place where Erin and the child were last, only to find an empty beach.

The pacing is what will set the rate of tension and the feeling of danger. Erin’s reactions can help to show her excitement over her seeming ‘good fortune’, ‘God-sent’ opportunity. This opening will be reexamined by readers as they get further into the book, wondering what ‘tells’ could have been noticed that would have changed the course of events.

I would read on, after the additional words, as the final line of dialogue would be such a promise.

(Here’s more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

2. Is the plot set up sufficiently?

Well, the kidnapping of a child is clearly presented. Since we don’t know if this was a crime of opportunity or planned, we won’t know what her motive is or if there is a motive. The consequences of such a crime would be enormous and the investigative actions far-reaching, one would think. To have the quilters become involved, the little quilt the child had potentially gives an ‘in’ to this group. Either the child belongs to a quilter or mom and child belong to the grandmother who is a quilter. This is my assumption – that the quilters are brought into the mystery through the quilt the child carried.

To be honest, I would prefer not to begin this story with dialogue and child-presentation. I would rather see a tight, in close introduction of Erin, where she’s sitting, what she sees, and what she’s feeling, but those feelings are limited to one single moment, as though she’s taking this all in, thoughts about the storm, maybe a fleeting reference to something in the past – enough that we know her mindset in that moment – that she’s daydreaming a bit. Something one might do while sitting on the steps of a beach house (is it hers or a strangers? Perhaps already boarded up for the storm?) while your child plays in the sand nearby.

This way, we meet Erin, become grounded in the scene, and see no reason to think of her as suspicious. Maybe she’s staring at the waves and clouds, 1,000 miles away in her mind – whatever is happening, I needed to know how she hadn’t seen the woman’s approach with the child. Had she closed her eyes? Had she leaned back on the steps to stare at the sky? Why didn’t she see the woman? That’s a question that is bothersome.

Once the scene is set, briefly, Erin can have the encounter with the woman and child. Perhaps she’s deep in some wonderful thoughts that make her mood light and happy. She could be the child’s mom, who just got lost in thought, is glad the child is okay, but is just in too good a mood to be upset. She’s agreeable, but not usually a demonstrative person.

You can create a situation where we can make excuses all day long for her reactions, and then be stunned when she turns out to be the creepy kidnapper!!

(Here’s more on Are You Asking--and Answering--the Right Story Questions?)

3. Is it too tight?

If I’m understanding you correctly, I would say: yes, it’s a bit too tight. Yet again, there are several points where you could easily cut the word count. In an opening, we need to make every word work for the story. There are a few places where it’s not the word count, but what the words are telling the reader, what information is being presented.

For example, Erin picks up the child and there are 38 words around this and the transition to her moving to the car. This is one of those little opportunities to show a lot that directly affects how the reader perceives the story. She picks the child up – and then does she covertly bundle ‘it’ up or cover it with the quilt? Does she scan the beach before moving? You have her trotting, but could she walk briskly? You show her hunched, which is good, what else can you show in her movement that supports the first flicker of ‘oh, no…’ in readers? (grin)

I believe with some careful re-distribution of existing material you will have a grounded opening with building suspicion and tension. At some point, early on, I believe the story will benefit by planting some seeds of doubt about Erin’s, um, mental stability or brokenness. 

(Here's more on Why You Should Tighten Your Novel's Narrative Focus)

I enjoyed your opening and hope you forge ahead with this – you show a strong ability to create hints of problems and that last line of dialogue is killer. Thanks for allowing us to chat with you and for sharing your WIP. Good luck!

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

5 comments:

  1. It did intrigue me, and I can see this story will revolve around a kidnapped child. I can’t yet tell if Erin is the main character or the antagonist. It has a prologue feel to me.

    The fact that “Mom” seemed so unconcerned with the toddler, and called the child “it,” didn’t use a name, and didn’t even notice the child at first, clued me in that something was very off about this person. That immediately made me think, “That’s not the mother.” So when she acted like she knew the child, I thought, “Oh, that’s not good.”

    I wanted a bit more emotion and a hint into Erin’s mind when she makes that decision to take the child. This seems like a spur of the moment choice, not premeditated, and I wanted something there that let me see at least a glimpse of why she did it.

    But that might give too much away, so I can also see not doing that. I think it depends if this is a prologue and readers never see Erin’s POV again or if they do. It’s not necessary for a prologue, but it might be if Erin’s a POV character.

    It’s a tough call, because it does make me wonder why she did it.

    The beach setting had enough for me to ground the scene, though I did question full sun with a hurricane a few hours out. The day before, yes, even eight or ten hours before, but that close didn’t match my hurricane experiences (Florida gal, here).

    I didn’t get a sense of danger from the storm, but I did get a sense of “this is bad” from the situation. I also didn’t get a sense that Erin was a threat to the child (as in, she meant the kid harm), but her reasons for taking the toddler stemmed from something else. That “something else” is what I wanted a hint about. I agree with Maria that having the good Samaritan notice something was off would help there.

    I also agree with Maria that this would benefit from some tightening and smoothing increase the tension and sense of forbidding. The writing’s a little choppy as is, though that’s common in an early draft.

    Overall, the bones are good, and it did get my attention. I suspect it will be a strong opening after polishing.

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  2. One more vote, that the trick here is bringing out the tension you want as you lead us through this.

    This isn't a thriller, that could openly focus on the child wandering around ominously or Erin scheming to grab it. But if the initial focus is Erin *not* being a typical child-abductor, what *is* she instead? what key thing or hint do you want us to know about Erin before she's literally handed her chance to steal a child?

    Revealing that she's not the mother is your big moment, but its power comes from its contrast with what we saw about Erin before. What can she say, do, think while she's taking the child that raise our suspicions but also tell us a bit about her? Does she need a moment to react and then "come to life" with overdone eagerness to get the kid? is she thinking of something else even while she lures the child in? You've got a challenging passage to write here, how you can hint that she's not the mother and also what she is, and do it all in the context of the other woman handing the child over. A lot of that might be rethinking paragraphs 2, 3, and especially 5 (good scene-setting but all dumped into one place when you need to show us the texture of the characters right now). As it is, those vital moments in the sequence still leave Erin pretty undefined and blank.

    You might have more wiggle room if you emphasize that the other woman is too hugely busy to notice that these two don't act like family.

    Since this is women's fiction and an antagonist who may not be anything more than confused, I expect the story will be all about slowly layering on understanding of what's going on. That does make this scene the first of your layers, so you want to make full use of what Erin seems like before we realize what she's doing.

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  3. I very much like the premise, which gives this story many directions to go. I felt like I wanted a little more about the kidnapper - it doesn't need to be a "give away" to who she is, but it could build the tension. If someone is planning on kidnapping they would be anxious - can we see those emotions?

    Since she had a bottle and blanket, it appears this is planned. So is it a bit too convenient that the woman brought her over? Or is she sitting where the mother was and the mother is out searching? I would think the bottle and blanket would need to be familiar to the child. At that 1-2 year old age, children are very suspect of strangers - and assuming this woman is one, there might be a bit more fussing, which could also add to the tension.

    I agree that a mother whose child was found in the sand would have a stronger reaction. If this kidnapper is setting this up, then she would want to play the part.

    I love the part of hearing the crying voices from the beach - it builds the tension and the fear.

    Lots to work with here, including incredibly high stakes. Good luck!

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    Replies
    1. oooo! Lynn, I love that idea of the child already being searched for... since Erin is sitting of the steps of the beach house, it could even be that the child lives there -- and the group away south is the mother and family or friends searching. The woman who finds the child doesn't provoke a poor reaction from the child, so she/he might not fuss until Erin made the move to take her/him.

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  4. Although this doesn't seem to be a problem for other readers of the piece, I was confused by the location right from the beginning. First, there is a reference to "salt-weathered" steps, which in my mind makes me think it's going to be a town or city that gets a lot of cold weather & snow, then there's the reference to the straw hat, which implies the opposite. Yes, it becomes clear two paragraphs later that it's the beach, but not until after giving me a confused jolt.

    I also have no idea what fly-eye sunglasses means. 8-)

    Because I had "location" confusion, the paragraph that begins "...sun was in full glare, the waves" was another location jolt. I was thinking, the sun has waves?

    I didn't sense much emotion in either adult character. That the kidnapper is mentally checked out on one hand gives her a strangeness which will work beneficially for what she is about to do, but if she has been in any way planning something like this, would she not be aware she has to at least try to respond the way a mother would? And when the other woman approaches & says "this" I think that would be much more effective if she spoke/looked disapproving, otherwise it seems like an odd thing to say.

    Also, I realize the sun can be blinding (I'm in the southwest), and while I'm sure it would be hard to spot a woman holding a small pen or something, it just didn't seem feasible that Erin could not see the woman approach with a child, even in bright sun (as someone noted, how bright would it be with a hurricane approaching?).

    And because the woman says "this" in such an impersonal way, at first I thought maybe it was a dropped baby doll or something, since I had no concept of Erin's age when I began reading.

    As I believe someone mentioned, the "there you are" response seemed odd. If I was the other woman hearing this, I would HAVE to respond to such a low key response to losing track of what she perceived as the woman's child.

    The "it" references to the child do create an absolute coldness about the Erin character, but it also creates confusion, because later you do begin to call the child "her".

    I too was confused about 'what' was hidden from the beach--the stilts, the car, etc.

    The last two paragraphs are absolutely chilling & gave me the heebie jeebies. All the more reason to clear up the confusion of earlier paragraphs so it flows the reader to that chilling point. You've got a good start here.

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