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Saturday, March 20, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Paranormal Romance 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked until March 27.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening grab you and compel you to read on?

2. Are there confusing details you needed explained right away? Too many details/backstory?

3. Is my MC’s voice distinctive? Interesting? Do you connect with her and sympathize?

Market/Genre: Paranormal Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: When an obsessive-compulsive witch's magic breaks, she seeks help from the reclusive and sexy Witch Whisperer. She couldn’t know that finding a cure would risk the very existence of their secret witch society, their love and their lives. The story takes place in our contemporary world and a secret realm called Tae-wen, origin of the witches and accessible through guarded portals. This opening page take place in my main character’s apartment in New York City.

“Why now, Boo, at the worst possible time in my life?” Willow ducked as a china saucer flew by her ear and smashed against the kitchen wall. She leaped to her feet from the chair. “Take cover. More chaos.”

Her tiny mouse familiar dove from her shoulder into a blouse pocket. Plate after plate sailed out of a cupboard and crashed on top of the shards of glassware already on the floor.

A sick, frantic fluttering wheeled through her stomach. The widespread implications of this latest disaster clutched at the tattered shreds of her unacceptable life. Her magic was well and truly broken. Somewhere inside a flaw in her magic had lain hidden and chose now to crack open.

She rushed to her desk and slipped her blue hands into the special gloves before opening her laptop. Within seconds she entered the mystical dark m-web and logged into the Witch Whisperer’s lame website. His Gandalf-like avatar grated on her last nerve. He thought he was some kind of grand wizard, the arrogant…

He was probably a podgy, greying old crank hunched over a bubbling cauldron, his surly black cat familiar twisting around his ankles. She swallowed her hostility. In any case, he had to help her. He was her last hope.

In a moment of quiet, Boo scrambled up to her shoulder. “Let’s see if the Whisp answered me yet.”

She reread the frantic post she’d left earlier when only a few drinking glasses had committed suicide. “The chaos worsened this morning. I’m getting desperate!”

My Thoughts in Blue:

“Why now, Boo, at the worst possible time in my life?” Willow ducked as a china saucer flew by her ear and smashed against the kitchen wall. She leaped [leapt] to her feet [to your feet is assumed so unnecessary] from the chair. “Take cover. More chaos.” [I assume the warning is for her mouse familiar?]

Her tiny mouse familiar dove from her shoulder into a blouse pocket. Plate after plate sailed out of a cupboard and crashed on top of the shards of glassware already on the floor. [glassware is confusing unless you add glassware to the list of items being thrown]

A sick, frantic fluttering wheeled [fluttering/wheeled conflict – simplifying this sentence would help keep the pace going] through her stomach. The widespread implications of this latest disaster clutched at the tattered shreds of her unacceptable life. [I have trouble with this sentence – very complex overall – lots packed in here – but I still have her standing in the kitchen with plates whizzing at her – or not?] Her magic was well and truly broken. [without some context, like she was trying to use her magic before the cupboard exploded, I’m still outside Willow and her circumstance and why she’s so certain her magic was broken.] Somewhere inside, a flaw in her magic had lain hidden and chose now to crack open.

She rushed to her desk and slipped her blue hands into the special gloves [interesting, but again, no context, so I simply accept that she has blue hands, for some reason] before opening her laptop. Withi In seconds she entered was on the mystical dark m-web and loggeding into the Witch Whisperer’s lame website. His Gandalf-like avatar grated on her last nerve. He thought he was some kind of grand wizard, the arrogant… [a gesture, expression (stick out tongue), etc. to back this up would be fun]

He was probably a podgy, [kept wanting to change this to ‘pudgy’, which I’m more familiar with] greying old crank hunched over a bubbling cauldron, his surly black cat familiar twisting around his ankles. She swallowed her hostility. [I like this] In any case, he had to help her. He was her last hope. [does this mean she has already tried many things to ‘fix’ her magic? Stakes raised though]

In a moment of quiet, [this is confusing – I suggest removing it & just having the mouse scramble onto her shoulder, then have it clear that she’s speaking to the mouse.] Boo [confused – so is Boo the mouse? I thought Boo was the one throwing the plates. Time to re-read again…] scrambled up to her shoulder.

“Let’s see if the Whisp answered me yet.”

She reread the frantic post she’d left for him earlier, when only a few drinking glasses had committed suicide. [this prompted a smile but forces an anthropomorphic element toward china and glassware. “The chaos worsened this morning. I’m getting desperate!” [this infers that her issues with her magic have been discussed before, which does make me curious…]

The Questions:

1. Does this opening grab you and compel you to read on?


Not quite (readers chime in), but it’s not for lack of trying. The elements are interesting and fun, and the mysterious magic problem in intriguing. I want to know more, partly to get answers to the story questions you’ve set up and partly for answers to a few confusing bits. I would read on, but I’ve not become engaged enough yet to feel compelled to do so. I’m curious, which is enough that I would turn the page.

Overall, I have the feeling that you have tried too hard to make this opening ‘just so’ while also wanting the chaos happening to frame the intensity of the scene. The bits of chaotic action are laid out, but I don’t feel what Willow feels. She’s upset, of course, but for me as reader, it’s too open-ended. She makes no attempt at stopping the chaos in the kitchen and we don’t know if it occurred because she was attempting to use her magic. I assumed the cabinet just burst open and began disgorging things. Were they all aimed at her? How long had the plates been flying after the glasses were spit out? Was she trying to put away dishes using magic?

So, a timeline would help regarding this event. What was she doing in the kitchen at the time? Was she trying to eat a meal? Has the phenom been going on for the day or hours? Is this the 3rd day of wild things happening every time she attempts a spell? Or are wild things simply happening – period?

As you see, I have lots of questions, mostly because I have no grounding in the scene. I don’t know why she thinks her magic is broken and how long she’s been struggling with it. I also don’t know why the wizard she dislikes and seems to disrespect is her last hope.

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

2. Are there confusing details you needed explained right away? Too many details/backstory?

There are not too many details and very sparse (to me) backstory. I know that the gross wizard has been messaged at some previous point, but don’t know how much time has passed since she sent her cry for help.

There are a number of confusing elements, with some easily handled by adjusting sentence structure. I was confused about who was throwing dinnerware – felt certain someone or something was the culprit, but then, slowly, had the idea that perhaps the cabinet and its contents were the result of a spell gone wrong. However, this isn’t clear to me, if that idea is correct.

The initial opening sentences happen in a vacuum, which makes it more difficult to figure out what’s happening. A type of grounding could be to simply put a timestamp on the cupboard going nuts, such as:
“The saucer whizzed past her ear and smashed against the wall. Dammit! Not again! Willow ducked and fought off her irritation that raced toward desperation. Boo, her diminutive mouse familiar, leapt from her shoulder and dove into her blouse pocket as a dinner plate flew by and splintered against the wall.

Running from the kitchen to her desk, she snatched up her gloves and slid them over her blue hands, then stabbed at the keyboard in front of her computer until the dark m-web let her in. A few more keystrokes and she landed at the Witch Whisperer’s lame website.”

This rewrite is pretty rough, but hopefully can show how you can push your character into reactions and actions that show the reader just how desperate she feels. Pounding on the kitchen table, grabbing the monitor (we all do this, the computer has a ‘face’ that needs squeezing sometimes), hands through hair, tapping fingers on desktop, heaving sighs or blowing air, abruptly leaning back in a chair, then just as abruptly leaning forward to read the screen… the options are almost endless. 

Let your readers get shoved this way and that without time to think about what’s missing or all the ‘why’s’. If you want to show the disorientation of the scene, don’t get let that character get stuck in reflection about their life – right now the cupboard is freaking out! She’s desperate! So desperate she has sought help from someone she thinks is gross – why would she do that? Why does this guy qualify as her last hope?

Desperation is most reliably projected through action and reaction. When we are at the end of our rope, we act like lunatics, overreacting, overemoting, no longer screaming into pillows, but just screaming. (grin).

Make sense?

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

3. Is my MC’s voice distinctive? Interesting? Do you connect with her and sympathize?

Yes, her attitude can be seen, and her voice identified as unique to her. (readers chime in) The bit about how she views the Wizard Whisperer showed the most about her – and it was funny to me, showing that she was able to deal with people she didn’t like to accomplish her goals. I wanted this wizard to be a surprise to her, which means I identified her clearly enough that I could anticipate the fun of having this other character be a totally unexpected personality/look.

This little piece re: the wizard tells me that you are capable of doing what’s needed to give some stronger ‘hints’ about the MC and her life/problems/strengths and weaknesses.

I did connect to a certain point but have no sympathy for her. I get no guidance regarding her dilemma or why her life is seen as being tattered and a really big mess. No idea what has been affected or what she’s done to control the problem or what her life is! To have sympathy, I need to know what she’s losing, has lost, or could lose. I also don’t know what she’s working toward, what goals or aspirations – and why she appears to be so alone that she can only find help with some anon wizard. In other words, I don’t know her situation at all, except in this one moment, so I cannot feel sympathy toward her or her situation.

I get that she’s in a dilemma. I just don’t have enough information to give me reasons to be concerned about her. If her situation is desperate – show us what the stakes are – name them, describe them – show what is being threatened.

You have a lot of good ‘stuff’ here – rearrange the puzzle pieces a bit, give us a bit more info in a desperate context, and have fun! Good beginning – keep going!

(Here’s more with Do You Get My Meaning? Providing Emotional Clarity in Your Writing)

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. The biggest issue for me was context and clarity. The first paragraph is confusing, so I never get grounded in the scene, and spent the rest of it playing catch up and trying to parse what's going on. But I like what's going on, so it's just a matter of making the situation clear.

    At first, I thought Willow was talking to Boo, who was throwing things at her and she was asking why they were doing that now. Then she leaps from the chair, which felt out of place, since that seemed like a reaction to the flying dishes. She says take cover, but I don't know who she's talking to.

    The overall details of the scene are good, but too many of them fell just short of giving me enough information to understand them. I suspect the needed context just isn't making it to the page yet, but another pass to add some internalization and clarity would get them there.

    As a romance, it totally sets up the gross podgy wizard to be hot and the eventual love interest, and has a solid "forced to work together and fall in love" element. That's working well and I can see where the romance side of things is going. I can imagine the meet cute already.

    I like the voice and it reads like a PR. I don't know Willow enough yet to connect to her, but I like her so far, so connecting won't be an issue if I better understand her issue here. Once the confusion is cleaned up, this is a book I'd read, and this opening would draw me in. It has the right pieces, I just need to understand what they mean better.

    Overall, I'd suggest taking a little more time to set things up. With fantasy, readers are fine with a little world building at the start since it's a world they're not familiar with. I can see this is a world with witches and magic, Willow is a witch, her magic is acting wonky and she needs help. Expand a little on those elements a bit more and readers will happily wait for the rest of the world to unfold. Wanting to know more will draw them in.

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  2. I love this feature, it helps me so much as a writer! I agree with the experts but I just wanted to add that I liked the fact that her "familiar" was a mouse and not something more traditional, like a cat or a bird of prey. It fit with the tone.

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    Replies
    1. Meg, you echo my thoughts, which I forgot to mention, about the mouse. I liked the whimsy of his name and that he could be more easily snuck into situations due to his size and nature covert nature. Thanks for bringing this up! :O)

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  3. I agree, this has a lot of energy: it's a magical crisis, a mouse named Boo, and a witch with an appealing voice. And, I don't think it's quite here yet.

    Mostly, this feels Told. It's more immediate than many writings, but there's still a sense that you're standing back from the moment and trying to sum up Willow's feeling, instead of letting us live it. Opening with "the worst possible time" (and not clarifying why) is a big part of that. The third paragraph in particular feels more like the author shifting gears to summarize than Willow making a decision in the heat of things, and the fifth seems like a longer aside about the Whisp's looks than she'd really take if she's "getting desperate."

    What's been the history, between those couple of glasses that prompted her last message, and now? Have things been semi-quiet with minor flare-ups until now? Has she been wrestling the problem for hours and just now lost control? Frustration is about momentum, and dashed hopes.

    Also, what would Willow do right in this moment, with this many saucers flying? Would she try to barricade the cabinet closed first, or get out of the house so she didn't damage her favorite things, or would she crouch down and not risk a move until it's all over? If she's calling the Whisp now, it might be because she's already done part of that or reached a safe place to do it.

    In particular: what does it feel like to have "your magic broken"? Is the immediate problem telekinetic, so she feels the back of her mind grabbing at objects and just can't stop it? Is the damage caused by spirits, that her tainted presence is attracting and enraging? This is the cause of the story, but you ask us to take it for granted when you could ground us a little in what it actually means to her.

    All in all, I like what this moment could be, and I like where it's going. If it were clearer about *exactly* what it is right now, we'd be right there with Willow.

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  4. I was confused by the first sentence not knowing who Boo was, and no immediate name for the protagonist. The rewrite Maria did will help clarify. I wanted more internalization to sympathize with Willow and what is at stake.. Her voice is good, likeable. Great elements and storyline. Just needs tweaking.

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