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Saturday, January 23, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Cozy Mystery Opening

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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked until January 30.

This week’s question:

I've been working hard on creating better characters. My goal is for Cherry to be compelling from her first moments—is that coming through?

Market/Genre: Cozy Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: The protagonist is Cherry Lane, a talented but unsuccessful rock singer. At the end of this chapter Cherry will find an obnoxious club owner murdered, but first she has a gig to play.

My drummer shouts “ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” and I suddenly really need to pee.

I cross my legs, grip my mic stand and peer past the stage lights at the crowd. It’s good turnout for a dive like the Sawbuck, fifty sticky people crammed into a dim, hot room that wouldn’t fit Stevie Nicks’s shawl collection. The front three rows are bobbing to the music, all eyes on me. After that there’s cell phones out and conversations happening, but not too many. The crowd doesn’t thin out until the little round tables up against the bar, where they’re all talking or texting, but those people didn’t come to hear music anyway, they came to drink or flirt or be seen.

My bladder yells at me. Maybe I can ignore it… I push my hair from my eyes and adjust the angle of my mic. I asked for a Beta 57A and they gave me an SM58. Lots of singers love the SM58 but it makes my voice muddy.

“Hello!” I shout, probably muddily. A few people cheer, faces I recognize from the last time we came through Ducksworth. “We’re Cherry and the Cordials and we’re loud!” I make a mental tick: one. You’re supposed to say your band name seven times during a set. Then it’ll stick in people’s heads.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[My drummer shouts “ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” and [I suddenly really need to pee.] This is something everyone can relate to, so it creates sympathy

I cross my legs, grip my mic stand and peer past the stage lights at the crowd.] I’d suggest moving this to after the opening paragraph. Start with the turnout and Cherry’s thoughts on the crowd, then have the drummer shout [It’s good turnout for a dive like the Sawbuck] suggests the band is good, and shows she’s still playing gigs in dives, so odds are she’s still a struggling musician, fifty sticky people crammed into a dim, hot room that [wouldn’t fit Stevie Nicks’s shawl collection.] A bit of voice that also shows she probably knows music The front three rows are bobbing to the music, all eyes on me. After that there’s cell phones out and conversations happening, but not too many. [The crowd doesn’t thin out until the little round tables up against the bar, where they’re all talking or texting, but those people didn’t come to hear music anyway, they came to drink or flirt or be seen.] I like this analysis of the crowd and how she isn’t worried about the people she knows didn’t come to hear them

My bladder yells at me. [Maybe I can ignore it…] I wondered a bit if this is normal for her, or if this is unusual I push my hair from my eyes and adjust the angle of [my mic.] Perhaps a hint of emotion here, such as a frown, or a inner “darn.” I asked for a Beta 57A and they gave me an SM58. Lots of singers love the SM58 but it makes my voice muddy.

“Hello!” I [shout] two “shouts” close together, so perhaps change one, [probably muddily.] hehe A few people cheer, faces I recognize from the last time we came through Ducksworth. “We’re Cherry and the Cordials and we’re loud!” I make a mental tick: one. You’re supposed to say your band name seven times during a set. Then it’ll stick in people’s heads.

The Question:

1. I've been working hard on creating better characters. My goal is for Cherry to be compelling from her first moments—is that coming through?

Yes (readers chime in here). Needing to pee while having fifty people staring at you can’t be easy, so Cherry immediately appears vulnerable, which earns reader sympathy. But she doesn’t let it affect her, and she stays in control, which shows she’s good at this and know what’s she’s doing, so she also immediately appears confident and capable. That’s a strong combination for “likable.”

(Here’s more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

I get a fun sense of who Cherry in from this. She’s an up and coming musician, who’s serious about her music, has a practical sense about how she approaches it, and appreciates her fans enough to remember their faces from previous gigs. But she's also struggling, since she's still playing in dive bars.

There are also a few voice details that made me smile, such as the Stevie Nicks shawls line and the “probably muddily” quip.

I get enough other details to set the scene and character—crowded dive bar, a taste in specific mics, marketing savvy, the name of the protagonist and band, a town name that makes me think this might be set in the UK. No clue if it is—just anything ending in “worth” brings that to mind for me (grin).

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

I had a few minor tweak suggestions:

She says she has to pee, then spends a long paragraph describing the room, which lessens her need. Perhaps switch a few lines around for stronger flow, such as:
It’s good turnout for a dive like the Sawbuck, fifty sticky people crammed into a dim, hot room that wouldn’t fit Stevie Nicks’s shawl collection. The front three rows are bobbing to the music, all eyes on me. After that there’s cell phones out and conversations happening, but not too many. The crowd doesn’t thin out until the little round tables up against the bar, where they’re all talking or texting, but those people didn’t come to hear music anyway, they came to drink or flirt or be seen.

My drummer shouts “ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” and I suddenly really need to pee.

I cross my legs, grip my mic stand and peer past the stage lights at the crowd. My bladder yells at me. Maybe I can ignore it… I push my hair from my eyes and adjust the angle of my mic. I asked for a Beta 57A and they gave me an SM58. Lots of singers love the SM58 but it makes my voice muddy.

I also wanted a teeny bit of emotion when she sees the mic is wrong. Nothing major, it just felt like it needed a quick thought or a physical sign that she was miffed about the mic.

Overall, this works for me, and I’d read on. The voice and setup in the background description alone piqued my interest enough to do so, and the page reinforced that.

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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8 comments:

  1. I liked it and got a clear sense of the character. It works because you dove in and defined her boldly--insecure one minute (i.e. nervous, need to go to the bathroom); picky, (i.e. they gave me an SM58 but I asked for a Beta 57A); and self-coaching (i.e. repeating your band name 7 times). I really like this (and I don't even like rock 'n roll. LOL!) because too often we as authors fall into the trap of softly defining a character in the opening of the story to the point that it's bland vanilla. I would definitely flip to the next page to read on.

    I would recommend dumping "muddily". While it's obvious what you mean by the term, somehow it just comes across as clunky.

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  2. Agree with all of Janice's tips. I felt it was a strong opening also. Loved the Stevie line. My only tiny comment is I'm wondering how she can cross her legs if she's standing on stage readying to sing. That wouldn't work. She'd have to try to ignore the "Siren" call of the bathroom,do a quick kegel pull or...(could be a good spot to inject a bit of humor). The other minor item was the use of muddy and muddily back to back. That bugged me. After Hello, I think I would try another word/phrase for something that relates to mud...My voice sounded thick as a swamp frog or...

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  3. I'm in - it works and most importantly has a great voice, one of the harder things to conquer in writing. The small things like muddily will disappear in a tight revision. What works is that we are drawn into to the character, we have a sense of setting, and have a mystery that's about to unfold that will keep us turning the pages. Great job!

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  4. Wowww, talk about bringing the subject to life! This is a superb study in little touches and energy that put us in the unique world of a busy singer's head, marvelously done. Mike discomfort, name counts, bar description, and of course peeing... this is all A-game stuff.

    It's maybe more self-contained than it should be. It captures the moment and Cherry's life so well, but there are no hints about the murder that's the actual storyline. The absolute ideal would be to have all this plus a prominent thread through it that hinted there was something dangerous or someone "missing," that a reader knows will lead to the mystery. If not, this is delightful enough that we've got a good tolerance for savoring this moment before it changes -- and we certainly hope the mystery won't *end* the rock scenes either.

    Janice asked for more emotion here and there, and I think there's room for that. As for keeping the bladder pressure in mind, I'd say don't (absolutely don't!) move that wonderful first line down, instead squeeze a mention of it in in the second paragraph. (I really wanted to say to split that paragraph so the point gets more noticed, but it's so seamless there's nowhere to divide it.)

    All in all... intricate, perceptive, and just plain fun depiction of an exact moment. This rocks.

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  5. Consider these additions to the start?

    My drummer shouts “ONE TWO THREE FOUR!” and I suddenly really need to pee. Oh my God, how fast can two beers pass through me so fast?


    I mentally cross my legs, grip my mic stand and peer past the stage lights at the crowd.

    If you add mentally consider dropping suddenly as along with really it would make it three ly words close together. Best of luck!

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    Replies
    1. Good point Don- I always look to kill my "ly" words!

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  6. I agree that the first line needs to stay first. Otherwise, I love Janice's tweaks to an already great opening.

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  7. Just be careful with the peeing, that you don't make the story sound like something it isn't...

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