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Saturday, March 13, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Short Story Opening Page

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 through March 20.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it draw you in?

2. Would you want to know more about Jeff and his goal to reach Abby?

3. Also, is the specific mention of Biosphere 2 and Celebration, FL helpful to understanding the type of town that Nathan Stotfold created or confusing?

Market/Genre: Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: Jeff broke Abby’s heart when they dated in their early 20s, and she never gave him a chance to explain or apologize. Thirteen years later, he’s found a way to contact her through a computer program called Memory Lane that’s used in an experiment she’s volunteered for. He’s never forgiven himself for hurting her and he’s hoping to tell her how sorry he is.

Jeff saw Abby’s picture in an online article. She was one of three hundred volunteers who agreed to be beta testers in a town built in upstate New York by tech billionaire, Nathan Stotfold. Nathan was obsessed with building the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system, and people’s memories were the key. To get the promised payout, residents signed NDAs and had to stay for at least one year in the town labeled by the media as a cross between two experiments from the early 1990s—Biosphere 2 in the Arizona Desert, and Celebration, Florida, a planned community.

Jeff’s eyes zoned in on the caption, Abby Perrino. He hadn’t seen her since their early twenties, when she was Abby Thorsen, but knew instantly it was her. He rolled her unfamiliar name on his tongue and wondered if her marriage was happy and if she had kids. Would she even care that Jeff had a wife and child? Or at least he did until the divorce, and Susan got sole custody. Not that he blamed her. After Abby, every woman was measured against an impossible ideal.

Jeff leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair. She was still just as beautiful as the last time he saw her walking down the hall at Corporate Solutions, Inc, eyes forward, a box labeled ‘office stuff’ in her arms. After the shock of seeing her wore off, his first thought was How can I reach her?

My Thoughts in Blue:

Jeff saw Abby’s picture in an online article. She was one of three hundred volunteers who agreed to be beta testers in a town built in upstate New York by tech billionaire, Nathan Stotfold. Nathan was obsessed with building the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system, and people’s memories were the key. To get the promised payout, residents signed NDAs and had to stay for at least one year in the town labeled by the media as a cross between two experiments from the early 1990s—Biosphere 2 in the Arizona Desert, and Celebration, Florida, a planned community. This opening reads more like a summary of the situation

Jeff’s eyes zoned in on the caption, Abby Perrino. He hadn’t seen her since their early twenties, when she was Abby Thorsen, but knew instantly it was her. He rolled her unfamiliar name on his tongue and wondered if her marriage was happy and if she had kids. Would she even care that Jeff had a wife and child? Or at least he did until the divorce, and Susan got sole custody. Not that he blamed her. After Abby, every woman was measured against an impossible ideal. This reads more like an opening paragraph to a story. Perhaps start with this

[Jeff leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair.] Perhaps put this right before “he rolled her name… [She was still just as beautiful as the last time he saw her walking down the hall at Corporate Solutions, Inc, eyes forward, a box labeled ‘office stuff’ in her arms.] perhaps put this right after her name, since this is probably his first reaction to it

Start new paragraph After the shock of seeing her wore off, his first thought was How can I reach her?

The Questions:

1. Does it draw you in?


Not yet (readers chime in). The opening paragraph reads more like a summary than a story, so there’s nothing to draw me in. The narrative flow feels a bit off as well, with Jeff’s reactions coming later and out of order.

I think you could smooth the flow if you re-ordered a few things, such as:
Jeff’s eyes zoned in on the caption, Abby Perrino. She was still just as beautiful as the last time he saw her walking down the hall at Corporate Solutions, Inc, eyes forward, a box labeled ‘office stuff’ in her arms. He hadn’t seen her since their early twenties, when she was Abby Thorsen, but knew instantly it was her.

[Something here about their history and how he wishes he’d been better about how it ended]

He rolled her unfamiliar name on his tongue and wondered if her marriage was happy and if she had kids. Would she even care that Jeff had a wife and child? Or at least he did until the divorce, and Susan got sole custody. Not that he blamed her. After Abby, every woman was measured against an impossible ideal.

[A good spot for him to make that decision to reach out]

Jeff leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair. How can I reach her?

Something along these lines would give you opportunities to show why Jeff needs to apologize, and why readers would want to see him do it.

(Here’s more with Uncovering the Mysteries of Narrative Flow in the Opening of Stephen King's 11/22/63)

2. Would you want to know more about Jeff and his goal to reach Abby?

Yes and no. If I hadn’t read the background and knew Jeff’s intentions, I’d think this was very different type of story. There’s a lot that’s not making it to the page yet.

This is one of those situations where the text is giving off the totally opposite impression than intended. I’m getting more of a sci fi thriller vibe than the “women’s fiction with a male protagonist” vibe you said this was.

Jeff is coming across a bit stalkery to me (readers chime in here, too), since there’s nothing to show why he want to “reach” her aside from she’s beautiful and his ideal woman. There’s nothing that says they ever had a relationship—just that he saw her in the hall. His thoughts and reactions read more obsessive, especially since he low-key blames her for his divorce. He knows she’s married, yet her still acts like he’s going to go “get” her.

I’m also a bit concerned with the Memory Lane software in your background, as this suggests Jeff is going to access her memories and “reach” her that way, which seems like a violation of her privacy if not her mind. I don’t know how Jeff plans to do that, but unless it’s his job to access and review those memories, doing so seems creepy. Even then.

And again, I know that’s not what’s going on here, but it’s still missing the details that will set the right expectations in your readers.

(Here’s more with Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

For me to get behind Jeff’s plan and want to see where this story goes, I’d want to know that he wants to contact Abby to apologize, that he regrets hurting her, and most importantly, that apologizing to her matters somehow. As is, it feels selfish of him to track down and intrude on the life of a woman he hasn’t seen since he broke her heart. Especially since there’s nothing in this first page that suggests why, though that might be the next line.

With a short story, Jeff’s reasons for needing to apologize to Abby are key. Will readers want to see if he finds forgiveness? And why does he need it? Is he just a selfish jerk who wants to win over the woman he dumped to feel better about his divorce? Is he genuinely sorry and looking for redemption? Has he met someone new and knows that he can’t move forward in a healthy relationship until he resolves his guilt over what he did to Abby? Is she the “one who got away” and he’ll never be happy unless he gives it another chance?

Why should readers care if Jeff apologizes or not? That’s where your hook will probably come from, and readers will want to know this right up front. For me, assuaging his guilt over breaking her heart isn’t enough. 

(Here’s more with So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

3. Also, is the specific mention of Biosphere 2 and Celebration, FL helpful to understanding the type of town that Nathan Stotfold created or confusing?

Only if you already know what they are. I actually live an hour from Celebration, so I recognize that, but I’ve never heard of Biosphere 2. You’d probably need to explain what the experimental town is and what the goal is. You’d also have to find the right balance between infodumping and establishing up the setting, which will be tricky in a short story.

If the story is about Jeff reconnecting with Abby to apologize, would it make more sense for him to also be a volunteer in the experimental town? That way, they could run into each other and have more interaction, and you wouldn’t have to explain the setup so much. Jeff would show it by experiencing it, and him thinking or talking about it would make sense.

For example, maybe he’s at the orientation and the rules and details are being explained to the volunteers, and he sees Abby across the room. He can then tone out the speaker and react to Abby, show his guilt and his need to apologize, and show why that matters. Maybe it has something to do with why he agreed to this experiment.

If the software is the key, maybe he’s involved that way, and that’s how he sees her. It’s the random “saw an article online that explains it” aspect that feels clunky to me, because you have to explain the setup, but the setup doesn’t relate to the protagonist in any way.

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

Overall, I think the core of this story isn’t making it to the page yet. It looks like a story about Jeff’s redemption and growth, but without seeing why he needs that, and how it’s going to change his life, I have nothing to draw me in yet. Show me that, and I might be willing to get on board with Jeff’s quest to reconnect with Abby.

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 paranormal thriller series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
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8 comments:

  1. I agree, this is a story that hasn't worked out how to present itself yet.

    I think the first thing it needs is an opening paragraph that probably conveys both of its two points: Abby and the project background. And since those points are so different, it should probably be a short paragraph so readers can notice both of them and their contrast clearly. Say

    "Jeff would never have noticed the Biosphere article if it hadn't been for Abby's name."
    or
    "*Abby? She's in the Biosphere*?"

    Or if a tight two-point paragraph seems wrong, you might start with either the project or Abby and give them a couple of lines in one paragraph that make it unusual and distinctive for a moment, and then add the other subject as a surprise. "He'd never thought much about a sealed city project, even if ...... That is, until he saw Abby listed on it."

    I think the initial two-part hook needs something like that to make it clear and powerful enough. After that, the key is probably Jeff's personality as he thinks about Abby: how stalker-ish do you want him to seem? (If he's going to be sealed inside the Biosphere town with his ex, that's *definite* stalker behavior and there may be no way around it.)

    Or if Jeff has a reason to be interested in the town itself, he could fill the next page reflecting on that, with Abby just something that keeps haunting his thoughts so we know she'll be more important. But I don't think that's where you're going.

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  2. The crux of the story being an apology doesn't draw me in. It's not enough of a hook to make me care. But the sci-fi hint of things does, and that can bring us down so many avenues to make not only a good short story but a great novel. We have Jeff the protagonist, Abby the love interest and Nathan Stotfold the antagonist. That works and really peaks my interest.

    For question #2 - I feel like there has to be more than Jeff just wanting to apologize, and we see that in the text where his divorce is because no one could match up against Abby. So that begs more than an apology - it is what makes the plot intriguing.

    I knew Biosphere 2 but I didn't know Celebration and putting either of their names in the story would beg an explanation for readers that might not be familiar. Since this is the opening and needs to be crisp, perhaps a simple explanation of a place that can neither be left or visited by outsiders, if that is what it is.

    Going to the bones of the story, I think there is a great tale to be told. We have a love interest. We have a tech billionaire playing with peoples lives (and minds). We have AI (that opens up a world of possibilities). We have a forbidden area. My mind goes to Jeff knowing something about Nathan that isn't good and wanting to save Abby from him. That's the apology.

    I like all the places this story can go - figuring on what the key elements are will help you flush that out. What does Jeff want? What is preventing him from getting it? What are the stakes? What is his struggle? What is the surprise ending? Playing with those questions will help in structuring this concept into a great story. Good luck! I would love to read it.

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  3. Thank you, author, for submitting your work. There are a lot of potential directions this story can go in, but as submitted, right now my primary reaction as a reader is confusion. In the opening paragraph, Jeff is immediately overshadowed and lost completely by talk of Nathan Stotfold and his AI plans. This paragraph doesn't have any emotional grab. The opening paragraph makes the reader think this is going to be some sort of sci-fi or tech thriller, and not that it's about Jeff or Abby, per se.

    The second paragraph seemed like a more likely opening if these two characters are meant to be the focus.

    1. Does it draw you in? Not yet. The potential is there. I am both confused by what genre it purports to be and not grabbed because there is a lack of an emotional component to the opening.

    2. Would you want to know more about Jeff and his goal to reach Abby?
    With a bit better lead in, I would want to know more about them.

    3. Also, is the specific mention of Biosphere 2 and Celebration, FL helpful to understanding the type of town that Nathan Stotfold created or confusing? It is helpful to understanding Stotfold's plans but am confused a to what relevance it has to the story of Jeff and Abby. The whole Stotfold angle sounds sci-fi or thriller-y, yet I get the impression that the story about Jeff and Abby isn't intended to be. So as a reader I'm not clear on where the author is going with this.

    Hope that helps.

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  4. My first impression of this snippet was that the name "Jeff" begins each paragraph, which for me means 'statements', not story. My reaction to Jeff deciding to find a way to reach her did come across as stalking and creepy. Then, the circumstance Abby would be in (experimental living for one contracted year) made me fear for her, as well as wonder why, if she was married, she would sign over a year of her life to this project.

    Is she divorced and didn't change her name? Is this project a chance for her to 'be alone' yet be actively involved in a cutting edge idea, while nursing the loss of her husband, and perhaps custody of her children?

    I cannot get behind Jeff, don't really want him to succeed, because he gives the appearance of being a creep who is obsessed with Abby and possibly didn't, and still doesn't, understand that he's a bit 'tetched' in the noggin. I also feel sorry for the wife he divorced, but am thankful he recognizes that he set up that failure.

    Another thought I had was that the online article may not have had any further info on Abby, as there are 300 people involved, but if she was a 'leader' or a substantial contributor to the project, there might be a brief blurb about her (education/experience that contributes to the project, etc.).

    Even without that possibility, I felt when he first saw the article is the trigger to show his reaction -- right then -- his excitement, which gives you a chance to show us something about him that allows us to see him as a guy consumed with guilt, not a creepy stalker (one isn't better then the other, but if he's not a creepy stalker the story is starting in confusion). At this point, Jeff could do the expected, which we ALL do in these times: do a search on Abby under her married name. Not only is this expected, but if he doesn't do it, I would wonder why he didn't. Is he so crazy he doesn't think of it? Is he just plain dumb (and pitiful)?

    If he does do a search on her, you immediately have an enormous venue to take Jeff through a series of hopes that are raised, then dashed, then raised again. You can also expose enough information about Abby, and allow him to reflect on her, that she becomes a real person -- unless, of course, you want her to remain the impossible-to-fix mistake he made -- a fantasy that might break him to face.

    At this point, I have an open playing field as a reader -- we can go in several interesting directions -- but I feel like I'm standing in one spot, turning in circles, going nowhere, waiting for the starter's gun to go off. So, drop Jeff into a scene where he makes discoveries, gets more and more excited, and physically reacts when the gunshot explodes in his ears and he.must.move! :O)

    Be brave! Jump in and splash about! You have enough here to make Jeff's character many things -- heck -- he may blackout and go Mr. Hyde, never knowing that his past is much darker, more dangerous -- and Abby is the target never acquired. So many directions -- so much fun!

    Good luck and come back, please!

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    Replies
    1. oops... forgot to just answer your questions! :O)
      1. Drawn in by the possibilities. As Lynn said: great tale to be told. But for now, I need the story to start...more action, less passive pondering.

      2. I know very little about Jeff, actually, so yes want/need to know who he is, why he's been unable to let go of his obsession with Abby, and if he's a little dense (see first comment about not being a person of action but a person who is stuck). The love of his life surfaces in an article and he does nothing to pursue that -- or even really react to it. Too much 'talk' and not enough showing proof that his guilt over Abby has made a mess of his life.

      3. I know of Biosphere and have heard of Celebration, so using both references allowed me to have an instantaneous, encompassing view of the new 'closed' community. I did wonder why this new place was in NY -- note that the other experiments are in very warm environs.

      Also, primitive and progressive AI applications are already integrated in many levels of our lives, from self-driving/parking vehicles to home security, entertainment, and networked systems, so a heavily AI community can be portrayed as very positive to very negative. If this environment becomes important to the story, then things could go anywhere and be very exciting.

      Right now though, all I want to know is how has spotting Abby in an online article affected Jeff? What action will he take? What's his plan? And is Nathan an outside bad guy or does he have a connection to Jeff or Abby? Any connection with either of them would need a rock solid foundation to be believable. Perhaps one of them knew Nathan before he was a billionaire?

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  5. 1. As already mentioned, drawn in by the possibilities. I would be very interested to read a final version of a story concerning somebody in, or connected to, Nathan Stotfold’s AI community and experiment. The sci-fi/futuristic aspect does entice me. Jeff’s portrayal as a stalker overrides that – to the extent that I questioned whether Abby really had a broken heart at all or if it exists only in Jeff’s mind. That Jeff’s marriage broke up because of Abby being an “impossible ideal” implied obsessive idolization (as in stalker) rather than love interest(as in dating possible life partner). Nobody is perfect. In real life relationships, people with the love of their life are still aware of deviations from perfection in their partner. And that Jeff didn’t know Abby’s married name raised big questions. If he was being so eaten up by the need to apologize for something genuine, why has he had no interest to know how she is doing or to be on the lookout for ways to make contact? Occasionally googling her would most likely mean he would already know she is married. And he’d probably have tidbits of information from mutual acquaintances and old work colleagues. There seems to have been nobody in his life who also knew her, or who maintained social media connections with her. Yet he is suddenly super interested to make contact when he sees she will be confined to a small area apparently unable to make an easy getaway for a whole year. Why did Abby disappear so totally from Jeff's radar that he couldn't have made an apology before this if he had really wanted to?

    2. Maybe Jeff’s motivations become clarified in the ensuing paragraphs. So far though, he is not coming across as wanting to reach Abby for good reasons. On the other hand, I'm not getting the vibes Jeff is supposed to be the villain.

    3. I knew of Biosphere. I’d never heard of Celebration. With the previous description of the AI experiment in the town it gave me enough to start with.

    I agree the AI experiment and someone being stuck a year in Nathan Stotfold’s town (like Abby) would make a great novel. I would read the short story too if Jeff were changed.

    Good Luck OP. There are some good ideas in here.

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  6. Lot's of great feedback here! I'll just add a few points. I like the romance genre (assuming that this is where you are going), and I also like sci-fi, but what makes this intriguing is the combination of the two. Romances can feel a bit formulaic, so adding the sci-fi piece adds a nice twist.

    Also, I didn't Jeff as stalker-ish yet, but I see that it has the potential to go in that direction if you are not careful, especially as there are some hints of it in that first section. Or if you do go in that direction (say he invades her memories), Jeff would have to redeem himself somehow (in a way that is convincing to the reader) before he could move forward with Abby.

    Another thing that stood out to me is that his wife had sole custody of his kid, because that's unusual in this day and age. At some point (not in the introduction), I would want to know if he has visitation with his kid, or is he completely estranged from him/her? How did his wife get sole custody, did he do something hurtful to the kid or did his wife get a really good lawyer who unfairly made him look bad? If it's not relevant to the plot or to Jeff's emotional state, then I suggest deleting the part about the kid and just keeping the ex-wife.

    I'm having a hard time imagining this as a short story. I see novel or novella length as more plausible. Although I don't know what direction you are heading, so take this with a grain of salt.

    I agree with Maria's comments that this could be heading in many directions. It would be nice if the intro clued us in (without completely giving it away) as to what direction it's heading and gave us a better sense if Jeff is going to be the creepy stalker, or the guy who has idolized this woman and finds out she's not what he thought, or is a sweet romance (in a sci-fi setting) where he makes amends for past mistakes?

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  7. Hello, I submitted this short story intro. Thank you Janice and everybody for the great feedback and advice! I really appreciate you taking the time.

    I have been trying to figure out the direction for this and now feel like I have some good avenues to explore. I also wasn't comfortable with the invasion of privacy aspect so good to hear I should look for alternatives for Jeff getting in touch with Abby. I definitely don't want him to be the creepy/stalker guy.

    I had been frustrated with this piece for awhile but now I'm energized to tackle it again.

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