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Saturday, April 24, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Piquing Reader Curiosity on Page One

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: None

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Would you turn the page?

Market/Genre: Psychological Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: My chapter goal is for the reader to “see” what the protagonist, Clara, was taught about marriage and infidelity at an early age, so they have a foundation for the rest of the story, which takes place when Clara is an adult. The scene goes on to reveal that "giving these men a story" is a way for Clara to learn how the "other woman" thinks, before they leave and follow her father to find out where he goes after work.

Clara, 1979

Lonely men are easy to spot. Married ones, especially.

Clara scribbled her mother’s words in her notebook. Her handwriting was sloppy, “especially” squeezed into the margin, so it looked like it was missing the last two letters. She yawned and crossed out both sentences and wrote them again to pass the time.

Her mother had homed in on the man and his gold wedding band as soon as he strolled into the coffee shop. One step through the door, and he searched the room for eye contact or a smile. A dead giveaway, even for Clara.

“He looks like the one from a few weeks ago,” her mother said.

Clara glanced up at the man and then went back to sketching in her notebook. “This one is skinnier.”

“Poor baby, you can almost smell the desperation. All he wants is someone to notice him.”

It was Clara’s turn to name him. Her mother, Emily, sipped her tea and waited. The week before, Clara was so brain-fried after an algebra quiz she needed half a coffee to name Pete. Pete with his wrinkled shirt and mismatched socks who’d sat in the corner with his eyes closed and head against the wall. Pete the former college track star who still dreamed about the crowds who roared and chanted his name. The great Pete who now spent his days stuck in an office with suffocating white walls and his nights in a house with an ocean view he couldn’t afford. All he needed was someone to lift him back onto his pedestal.

Clara and her mother didn’t just give these men a name, they gave them a story.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Clara, 1979

Lonely men are easy to spot. Married ones, especially. [love this...]

Clara scribbled her mother’s words in her notebook. Her sloppy handwriting was sloppy allowing “especially” [to run off the page, unfinished.] squeezed into the margin so it looked like it was missing the last two letters. She yawned, crossed out both sentences and rewrote [passive verbs – could this start with ‘Yawning, she…] them again to pass the time. [the yawn shows me her state of mind so this isn’t really necessary]

Her mother had homed in on the man and his gold wedding band as soon as he strolled into the coffee shop. One step through the door and he searched the room for eye contact or a smile. A dead giveaway, even for Clara. [a tiny sentence that made me smile and gave me a new piece of info on this character – nicely done]

“He looks [like?] the one from a few weeks ago,” her mother said.

Clara glanced up at the man and then went back to sketching in her notebook. [need to show her sketching so she can ‘go back’]

“This one is skinnier.”

“Poor baby, you can almost smell the desperation. All he wants is someone to notice him.” [this dialogue hit me as almost visceral – pithy – makes me want to know more]

It was Clara’s turn to name him. Her mother, Emily, sipped her tea and waited.

The week before, Clara was so brain-fried after an algebra quiz she and needed half a coffee to name Pete. [since we don’t know about the idea of naming AND creating a story, the move from observation to story happens without a foundation] Pete with his wrinkled shirt and mismatched socks who’d sat in the corner with his eyes closed and head against the wall. [this is observation] Pete the former college track star who still dreamed about the crowds who roared and chanted his name. The great Pete who now spent his days stuck in an office with suffocating white walls and his nights in a house with an ocean view he couldn’t afford. All he needed was someone to lift him back onto his pedestal. [this is ‘story’ – we assume she cannot know the facts of his life]

Clara and her mother didn’t just give these men a name, they gave them a story. [I like this line. It has power and pull, but I keep wanting to put it a bit earlier as a way to introduce the name/story process. The last phrase seems a good lead-in for actually giving Pete’s ‘story’…]

The Questions:

1. Does this opening work?


I say yes, but others may differ in this opinion – so, everyone please chime in. (grin) The first lines hooked me, for some reason, and I was immediately intrigued and curious about what was going on. You didn’t keep me wondering, which was nice, and I quickly had the mom and the setting, and that Clara was bored. I was curious about that boredom, thinking she was old enough to be taking algebra, old enough to drink coffee, and old enough to pay attention to her mother’s observations, yet young enough to be bored with the ‘game’ of naming, but not of creating stories.

Small slip with the sketching not being shown, but that’s an easy fix, if you want to keep it. With that bit of info, I altered my image of Clara to that of a high school girl with one arm full on the table, propping up her head, while the other side scribbled the occasional note in between sketching – um – what? Perhaps some of the patrons?

Clara’s age could be 14-16, ages where girls can be very childish and very adult all at once. If mother and daughter are on a ‘mission’ to learn what kind of man might be an easy target for ‘other women’, then it becomes seriously humorous. Is mom suspicious of dad and Clara is tolerating her mom’s latest ‘research’ process? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to…

Which brings me to the reason why you have me hooked right away: the situation and ‘why’ of the scene.

I want to know what is going on, and why, and you give tidbits of information that allow me to continue being curious while building the characters. The situation feels absurd, a little silly, and that’s fun. The mother/daughter relationship makes it intriguing, as well as helps me set what I feel is an appropriate age for Clara. Her age is only defined by her attitude and (to me) the fact that her life situation allows her to have coffee and to be included in her mom’s ‘research’.

(Here's more with Hooking Your Reader in 3 Easy Steps)

I do have a small cheat, in a note from the author, but I read the sample before reading the note.

So, we have a scene that is all about something that is happening for a specific reason, an unusual interaction that has a singular purpose. We don’t know what the purpose is or how the situation came to be, but it’s unusual enough that we’re curious.

For my part, I have no questions about what the coffee shop looks like or specifically what Clara and her mom look like. I want to know about the situation. I want to know more about why they’re doing what they’re doing and what prompted this situation.

Clara is yawning and scribbling and sketching, so the situation is clearly on-going, and whatever created the need for the situation is clearly not demanding urgent action. On the face of it, this appears to be a situation where mom and Clara are playing a sort of game. The gist of the game, even sans the author note giving more clarity, is spotting vulnerable married men by their appearance and behavior. A psych re-con game. That has enough of a humorous slant to pique my interest and keep my speculations sated with the progressive bits of info you lay out.

And so, yes – I believe, with some minor rewrites, that this opening is working. I want more.

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

2. Would you turn the page?

Yes (readers, let us know your thoughts, please). I’m having fun with this opening scene and have questions I want answered but feel confident that you will spoon out the yummies I want at the appropriate time. I am engaged with the situation and characters and am comfortable with the very direct writing style. There is enough here that has made me smile, as well as a hint of mystery, and I’m happy to follow the pace you’ve set.

One concern I have as to do with nailing down the style you’ve set. Avoid compound sentences, giving too much supporting language, and passive verbs, which can sloooow the pace.

The other concern is utterly personal: the name Clara. I cannot get the image of Clara the Cow out of my head. Clara the Cow is attached to some ancient cartoon or kids’ show. I only mention this to show that no writer can ever know what their words trigger – good, bad, or something from when the reader was four. (grin)

I’m anxious to see your rewrites, as well as the rest of your story (on real/virtual bookshelves). Good stuff! Follow your instincts in this potentially fun, quirky tale.

(Here’s more with The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

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

6 comments:

  1. I'd read on. The first line was great, and there are a several good hook lines to keep me intrigued. I found the situation interesting and curious for the reasons Maria mentioned. I like the idea behind the second paragraph with Clara sketching (I assume, and this is a good spot to add that for later), and making notes, but the wording is a bit clunky. I like the voice in it though, so I'd suggest something such as...

    Clara scribbled her mother’s words in her notebook. She ran out of room on the page and squeezed “especially” into the margin, squishing the last two letters into one. Yawning, she crossed out both sentences and wrote them again. [I like "wrote them again" over "rewrote them" for the extra syllable. The rhythm sounds better to my ear]

    This isn't perfect, but I do like the squeezing and the notice of the letters themselves. It struck me as an artist thing to notice.

    I agree to clarify the story part is what Clara has made up, not what they know about Pete. However, you can show Clara doing this by just having her give the new guy a name and story. Instead of making Pete a past guy, just make this new guy Pete. You could still use the algebra line, such as...

    The week before, Clara was so brain-fried after an algebra quiz she needed half a coffee to name the last guy. And she'd already forgotten it.

    Then Clara can stare at the new guy, name him, and give him a story. Something such as, "She imagined him as a former college track star..." or the like can get the idea across that she's making this up.

    A few tweaks and this will work nicely.

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  2. It's not easy to write "psychological fiction" -- but this definitely qualifies.

    You position us so we feel for these poor men the ladies are watching, but also get the smug thrill of seeing into their weaknesses. You put us completely in Clara's head, capturing so much through indirect messages like how she's bored during all this, and how they did this last week with Pete. This is shaping up to be an excellent story concept and an excellent telling of it.

    One thing this could use more of is a sense of what Emily's about to do with this knowledge. Maria called it "a re-con" (I'm so stealing that) and it's easy to assume Emily is planning some con game on these men... or it could be just ritual people-watching with a heavy dose of life lessons for her daughter. The sooner you start hinting at what it is, the more you can define the stakes behind all this, even if it's just teasing the truth.

    Something else: we need Clara's age, to the year, and fast. Without it we spend half our attention trying to firm up our picture of who she is and wondering if we're seeing it all wrong; with it everything falls into place. Fourteen is just that different from twelve, never mind eleven -- it's ALWAYS worth stretching the narration to work that number in. (Unless your plan is to imply she's one age and a page later surprise us with a different one.)

    The first line should be in quotes. It's not a thought, and it's not just a line Clara writes (that could have been italics) -- it's also what Emily says aloud, and we need that clarity from the start.

    A small point you might do more with: you said Clara is "sketching" more than she's making notes. That's a whole extra dimension to the picture (literally) of what's going on: she's contributing art to their project, or it's her sidelong way of following what Emily talks about, or she's sketching something else and only half listening... Whichever it is, it's a marvelous part of all this, and I'd like to see a couple words more of it wedged into this first page so we can appreciate it among the rest.

    Mostly... I love this. You've got a powerful opening concept and you're simply owning the techniques that bring it across. Bravo.

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  3. I'll concur with the review. The problems here are all tweaks. What works pulls the reader in before they know they're in the story, and I WAS in the story. I can add nothing new, but wanted to make it clear that, for where it is in the editing process, this is excellent. It's an example of an opening that's working really hard to capture the reader, but doesn't feel like it's working at all. I can give no better compliment than that. Well done.

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  4. THANK YOU, everyone, for the detailed critique and giving the most valuable thing of all: your time. This writer is beyond grateful.

    Ugh, that second paragraph has been a headache from day one. I couldn’t tell if I was being too picky or if it was clunky. Got the answer today ☺ I’ll take another stab using your feedback.

    Will also move the last line before Pete’s story, so it’s clear his details are made up.

    Ken brings up a good point about needing to know Clara’s age sooner than later. This one’s been in the back of my mind based on other submissions I’ve read here.
    I added the “algebra quiz” note and then a few paragraphs later Emily will mention Clara just started high school. Clara’s father will also say she is fourteen later in the chapter.

    Would it help if I tweaked that quiz line to, “Clara was so brain-fried after her first high school algebra quiz?” Or does the reader need more, earlier?

    I’m finished with the 1st draft and have been letting it stew while I tackle another story. And, truthfully, haven’t been too excited to get back to it. Your encouragement is the lift I needed. THANK YOU.

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    Replies
    1. The algebra quiz denotes to me she's about 14. Good enough for me. Your story is excellent.

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    2. Adding her age to the brain fried line would work for me. That's still early on. Or you might look at how to add something to the sketching paragraph. "To pass the time" might be "instead of doing her algebra homework" or the like. There's probably a way to work it in there.

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