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Saturday, April 03, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Authorial Intrusion and Humor

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 24.

This week’s question:

1. I'm hoping authorial intrusion right off the bat will help set a humorous tone. Unfortunately, that delays dialogue till the next page, which may be a bit late. Do you judge the authorial intrusion could allow the delayed introduction of dialogue?

Market/Genre: Adult Action Adventure

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Look Away, Dixie


Fall Semester, 1965

If you’ve never been rousted awake crapulous and incarcerated, you probably can't quite cotton on to how close to rock bottom I felt that crisp fall morning. But my life was on track to take a critical turn for much worse.

Now, you might not credit this, but—cross my heart—I don't rightly recollect how I came to be at the wheel that night. And I sure as heck don't know why the convertible stalled, mired to the frame in parallel ruts gouged out of the manicured lawn of the Kappa sorority house.

* * *

As a campus cop jerked me from the driver’s seat, I vaguely recall gawking—flabbergasted—at the shambles in the car’s wake. A cockamamie thought flashed into my head—How might our Lit-for-the-Fit prof describe the sight?

Now you see, the Athletic Department scheduled us for special tutoring classes with easygoing professors who enjoyed spending Saturdays in seats between the 40-yard lines. As simple country boys thrust into the alien landscape of Higher Ed, Kenny and I used to amuse each other by trying to wrap our minds around our professors’ words we’d never heard back in Nickajack. Surely the professors knew we had no idea what their words meant, but we made a private game of learning those weird words and using them. Could be that’s what set off my uncontrollable snickering—trying to conjure up the fancy phrases Professor Arnold might use to describe my path of destruction.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Look Away, Dixie


Fall Semester, 1965

[If you’ve never been rousted awake crapulous and incarcerated, you probably can't quite cotton on to how close to rock bottom I felt that crisp fall morning.] This is a tough opening line to parse. I actually had to look up crapulous, as I’d never heard the term before, and thought at first it was a made up word or slang But my life was on track to take a critical turn for much worse.

Now, you might not credit this, but—cross my heart—I don't rightly recollect how I came to be at the wheel that night. And I sure as heck don't know why the convertible stalled, mired to the frame in parallel ruts gouged out of the manicured lawn of the Kappa sorority house.

* * * I don’t understand why there’s a scene break here when the next paragraph seems to continue the story uninterrupted

As a campus cop jerked me from the driver’s seat, I vaguely recall gawking—flabbergasted—at the shambles in the car’s wake. A cockamamie thought flashed into my head—How might our Lit-for-the-Fit prof describe the sight? At the moment, I’m feeling equally jerked around from one thought and location to the next, and it’s a bit hard to ground myself. What does the lit prof have to do with anything? This thought hijacks the narrative, so we go from the accident to talking about tutors with no sense as to why

Now you see, the Athletic Department scheduled us for special tutoring classes with easygoing professors who enjoyed spending Saturdays in seats between the 40-yard lines. As simple country boys thrust into the alien landscape of Higher Ed, Kenny and I used to amuse each other by trying to wrap our minds around our professors’ words we’d never heard back in Nickajack. Surely the professors knew [we had no idea what their words meant,] I find this hard to believe since he opened using crapulous but [we made a private game of learning those weird words and using them] ah okay. So this is a farther back flashback? I’m lost as to when this fits in with the other story [Could be that’s what set off my uncontrollable snickering—trying to conjure up the fancy phrases Professor Arnold might use to describe my path of destruction.] I don’t know what he’s talking about here

The Question:

1. I'm hoping authorial intrusion right off the bat will help set a humorous tone. Unfortunately, that delays dialogue till the next page, which may be a bit late. Do you judge the authorial intrusion could allow the delayed introduction of dialogue?


Yes, because the internalization has the same pace as dialogue, so I feel like I’m having a bit of a conversation with the narrator. First person point of view almost reads as if the narrator is talking to the reader anyway, so it’s not a big leap to go from “telling my story” to “telling someone my story directly.” This style isn’t uncommon in first person novels.

It’s harder to hook readers with pages of exposition and description and no dialogue, but easier with internal dialogue, which is what you have here. The narrator is “talking,” he’s just talking to readers.

(Here’s more with Are You Talking to Me? Addressing the Reader)

I'm not getting the humor side of it, though I suspect that's because I'm struggling too much to follow the story. I get "southern folksy" from the voice, not humorous. Humor is subjective, though, so it might just not be to my tastes (readers chime in). 

(Here's more with 5 Lessons on Writing Humor)

Since “Yes” doesn’t feel like you got your money’s worth here (grin), I’ll share a few more thoughts on this submission. You’re essentially asking if this opening will keep readers engaged, and while I don’t think the lack of dialogue is hurting it, the lack of grounding and clarity is.

I’m lost as a reader in this (readers chime in here). It has an interesting voice, it seems like there’s a puzzle to work as a hook (why did he wind up drunk in jail and how did he get his car stuck), but I can’t ground myself in what’s going on or connect to the narrator. I’m being yanked from one thought and location to another with no clear path how I got there, and details are shared as if I should already know what they are and what they mean. 

The voice style is just complicated enough to force me to slow down or re-read to make sense of it, but it’s not giving me enough to understand it even when I do. It’s almost a stream of consciousness narrative, though I suspect the narrator is just taking his time getting to his point (that slow, southern storytelling style). But for me, it’s hard to stay with him long enough to get there.

There’s no narrative focus, so I can’t find a story thread to draw me in and make me curious to know what happens. And the one thread that started to hook me (the puzzle) is abandoned almost immediately. 

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

The intrusion doesn’t bother me and wouldn’t keep me from reading, but the lack of clarity would. I just don’t understand what the narrator is trying to tell me or where the story lies, and without something to hold onto narratively, I’m left behind as a reader.

Overall, I suspect this might be focusing more on the style and humor than the story right now. Maybe it’s a test of the voice and you aren’t trying to build the narrative yet, or maybe there’s a lot that’s just not making it to the page yet. If this is a style test, it’s working, so work on the story side next. If not, then I’d suggest tightening the narrative focus and adding in the story elements that all good opening scenes should have. I think this is worth developing, it's just still rough right now.

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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4 comments:

  1. "Humor only needs one thing: perfection."

    This is clearly a story that's all about trusting your writer's voice and your sense of what's funny. That's a good goal -- the tricky thing is, it can mean the boundary between what works and what doesn't is hard to learn. That makes it hard to give advice about.

    One specific thought: this page has two interruptions in its flow. One is the asterisk-break you use to underscore your "sorority house" punchline, the other is stopping the action for a large aside about fancy professors' language. I think either one could work, but not both of them close together. Either keep the asterisks and then stay with the action for a while (because we *want to know* what this car's doing in the coeds' lawn!) or go more smoothly and quickly through the scene-setting into the moment where he stops to muse (and let that be your main draw at first, that he thinks all this while stuck on the lawn). Either on its own would be a high point, but using both creates the sense that "the interruptions *are* the point," and that's a very hard style to pull off.

    That's my overall thought about this: look for when you've given the writing more wording or narrative twists than it needs. Sometimes more jokes mean more laughs, sometimes they fight each other or just don't give us time to breathe. You might keep looking at humorous writing, especially comparing different varieties of it to see what they have in common, and keep honing your "ear." (Not literally, though: be careful of thinking what a great storyteller can get away with when speaking aloud. Writing has to work just with the print.)

    Humor is infamous as the hardest style there is ("dying is easy, comedy is hard"). When you try to write all-out funny, the main way to get better is to keep trying and trying. Good luck, and enjoy your "research."

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  2. While I can "hear" the voice in the passage coming out, I am not able to follow what exactly is going on. When I see this type of opening, I can't help but to think of The Catcher in the Rye. A narrator bringing us into his story, and the author hooking us with their voice.

    That could be done with this piece, but we, the reader, need to be grounded in where we are and what is happening. That is missing and I don't think it has anything to do with the lack of dialogue.

    We don't want our readers to stop at words they don't know (I also did not know crapulous) or have to go back and reread sentences because they are confused where the story is taking them. That being said, there is a story here and with a little bit of work it can be organized in a way that allows the reader to enter the scene engaged with the story and the protagonist. Good Luck!

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  3. My impression is to stick with the first part, lose the * and end this section with the next sentence ending with "car's wake." Here, we have a question about this accident to keep us reading. Use the other part of the comments later on, sprinkled in elsewhere. I'm not getting much humor from it, just backstory, but then I don't write humor so can't helpfully comment on it. Instead, you can start your story much faster with this thread.

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  4. Let's see...

    The first sentence did earn a laugh from me, but the reason was personal. I have an old pal who loved to use ancient words, such as crapulous (from the 1600s), so it was a reminder of him. However, for me, when an author uses an unusual word, it means they are attempting to make a point. So, I read on, looking for that point ... and voila! I encounter the bit about the narrator and his pal, Kenny, making up word games. Nicely done...

    The remainder of the 1st sentence, after the curious word use, seems bent on conjuring a particular image/impression, yet it's too conflicting to ground me. The conjecture being set up is almost lost since the sentence is so full of qualifiers. A bit more simplicity will underscore the premise of: if you've never done/been this, you may not know/understand what I'm talking about.

    The next paragraph pushes the rural voice further, but then jarred me with the very complex description of the stuck vehicle. My ability to accept the narrator as 'country', with the 'don't rightly recollect' style, was derailed by that description. If the narrator had used folksy or more 'country' references in the description, I could have quickly nailed his basic identity/voice.

    Humor is built on common knowledge, a foundation that all forthcoming wink-wink, nod/nods spring from, so maybe reworking this opening to better identify that common knowledge will help.

    I understand what you wish to accomplish with this opening, but your character's ID isn't presented strongly enough to establish the commonality necessary for all readers to 'get' the humorous intent.

    Mostly, I just don't see this as an author intrusion. You can, as Lynne noted, have a narrator step up to the mike, pre-story, and lead us in -- but that narrator serves just that one purpose and is not considered a character in that story.

    I would be more easily engaged with a very brief scene setting, perhaps just sounds and smells? And then the protagonist can orient readers with internal dialogue and external mini-observations. Once these small bits of info are established, readers can pay attention to what this character and his story are all about.

    I believe you can dive into a humorous voice immediately, without any 'prep' work. Whatever you choose to do, have fun with it and don't be reluctant to experiment. You may stumble across the perfect foil for this character's voice that supports and drives the story. Good luck to you and come back to share any new ideas!

    ReplyDelete