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Saturday, May 08, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Making Readers Care Enough to Read On

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: Six

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 19.

This week’s questions:

1. Would this opening make you want to turn the page? (Right after this opening, he goes to a jazz club and meets a woman who may turn out to be The One.)

2. Is the character of Noah likeable, or interesting, enough? (He's a fairly successful writer who lives alone and is lonely, (though he doesn't know it) and just agreed to join a sailing crew to race around the world for 3-5 months.)

3. Do you need to know more about him to care what happens to him?

Market/Genre: Commercial Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Heart racing, eyes staring, barely breathing, Noah Wells stared at his cell phone. "What the hell have I done?" he asked himself, his boat, and the universe in general. He carefully set the phone down and leaned back in the settee of his thirty-eight foot sailboat home.

For a moment he stared blankly at a photo of a fifty foot sailboat in full race rig, the one he'd sailed on in the Bermuda race. A good sized boat, but seventy feet was a much bigger good-sized boat. Did he really want to spend months on a boat that size with seven other crew as it raced around the world in a maybe-not officially sanctioned race?

"Hell yes." He studied his laptop on the opposite side of the table, his office. "I think."

He thought about deadlines, would the publisher of his novels wait six more months for the new book he was working on? He had a couple articles planned, but nobody was waiting for them. His car and boat were paid for, but the slip rent would still need to be paid. Mail, phone, cable, taxes, credit card, a few goodbyes? He had forty-eight hours to deal with them before he had to be on a plane to Rhode Island. Could he do it? Did he still want to do it? "Hell yeah," he said, and got to work.

Thirty-six hours later of phone calls, emails, errands, and handshakes, hugs, and cheek kisses goodbye, Noah dropped his sea bag by the companionway ladder and let out a deep sigh. Tomorrow morning he'd catch a flight to the East coast and two days later be at sea for five... six... seven months. Now he had nothing to do but wait. He wondered if they'd have any jazz on the boat. Just in case, he knew where to go instead of... waiting.

Twenty minutes later Noah walked into Jubby's Jazz Joint, a low key bar with jazz and blues every night on a small stage in the back. Thursday night a small crowd, he sat at the bar. A woman just walking in caught his eye.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Heart racing, eyes staring, [avoid duplication/remove this use to give the two physical references more power] barely breathing, Noah Wells stared at his cell phone.

"What the hell have I done?" he asked himself, his boat, and the universe in general. He carefully set the phone down and leaned back in the settee of his thirty-eight foot sailboat home.

For a moment he stared blankly at a photo of a fifty foot sailboat in full race rig, the one he'd sailed on in the Bermuda race
. [45 words to frame this moment – and another use of ‘stared’ – beginning to envision Noah as bug-eyed *grin* - a tightening up will keep the scene moving] A good sized boat, but seventy feet was a much bigger good-sized boat. Did he really want to spend months on a boat that size with seven other crew as it raced around the world in a maybe-not officially sanctioned race? [23 words to infodump the scene’s premise, without taking a breath – I am curious about it and understand that Noah has experience with ocean sailing. He’s questioning his decision, but his reasoning seems weak (“did he really want?”), so I wonder why]

"Hell yes." He studied his laptop [this seems dangerously close to ‘stared at’ and makes me wonder what the laptop has to do with anything – is he looking at the screen?] on the opposite side of the table, his office. "I think."

He thought about deadlines, would the publisher of his novels [wordy – perhaps just ‘his publisher’?] wait six more months for the new book [now I know he’s a novelist] he was working on? He had a couple articles planned, but nobody was waiting for them. [is this important to include? I assume it means something to the story] His car and boat were paid for, but the slip rent would still need [‘still’ bothered me – I’d rather see him noting things and setting solutions, like the slip rent would need to be kept up, but he could pay ahead 6 months] to be paid. Mail, phone, cable, taxes, credit card, a few goodbyes?

He had forty-eight hours to deal with them [does this mean that this is all he needs to take care of? And why are taxes and credit card included?] before he had to be on a plane to Rhode Island. [don’t know where he is, so don’t know what time constraints he faces] Could he do it? Did he still want to [his decision is only a few minutes old – confused as to why it’s presented now as something done some time ago – some set up would help here] do it?

"Hell yeah," he said, and got to work.

Thirty-six hours later [comma here, then ‘after’] of phone calls, emails, errands, and handshakes, hugs, and cheek kisses goodbye, Noah dropped his sea bag by the companionway ladder and let out a deep sigh. Tomorrow morning he'd [awkward contraction] catch a flight to the East coast and two days later be at sea for five... six... seven months. Now he had nothing to do but wait. He wondered if they'd have any jazz on the boat. [If he likes jazz, wouldn’t he just load his player or phone app? His love of jazz could be established here by showing that he has loaded enough music for a year *grin*] Just in case, [of what?] he knew where to go instead of... waiting.

Twenty minutes later, Noah walked into Jubby's Jazz Joint, a low key bar with jazz and blues every night on a small stage [sounds like J&B are two entities, need a verb here] in the back. Thursday night, a small crowd, he sat at the bar. A woman just walking in caught his eye.

The Questions:

1. Would this opening make you want to turn the page?


Yes, if tightened up a bit. (readers chime in please) The premise presented is interesting to me, in particular, because of personal interests in international sailing and racing. Yet the presentation doesn’t help me care a lot about Noah or feel he is having any real difficulties. I do not get the idea that he’s lonely or keeps to himself, as your notes suggest. He has all the accoutrements of a bachelor’s life…

I did wonder if he lived on his boat. It seems that he does, but when he mentioned tending to ‘cable’ before leaving, I was confused. The mention of ‘taxes’ was equally confusing.

The scene seems to open with him being accepted as part of the 7-man sailing crew, a confirmation call, I decided, since his reaction was so dramatic – almost shocked. I wondered if he had submitted for the position, but without really committing to it. Perhaps he never thought he’d be accepted? His shock and staring near-dismay is never really explained, so I was left to create reasons, none of which led me to picture Noah as a serious sea-geek. I would like to have known why he was so dismayed by the call.

Some of my inability to connect with Noah was the lack of language flow. By this I mean combining movement in a flow of transitions. He finishes the call, stares at his phone, leans back on the settee (really? Not couch or sofa or divan? *grin*). I must supply all the body language, the gestures, the facial reactions. He could bring the phone to his forehead, tapping it on the bridge of his nose, then letting his arms go limp as he leaned back into the settee, expelling a huge sigh. 

Just a coarse example, but this complex sentence allows me to follow a logical, personal-to-Noah, sequence of movement. He is the center of the scene, so use him to create real interest in who he is, what he’s gotten himself into (if that’s the case). Let me ‘see’ his reactions, his energy level, and his explanations as to why he’s freaking out over the phone call and prospect of sailing a 5-7 month race. Does he doubt his abilities? Is he doubting his will to sustain his efforts for the entire race? Does he have, or has he been having, feelings that something ‘special’ is possible in the next months? Let us in on whether his reaction is just one of surprise and expected nerves at such a commitment, or if he’s really conflicted in another way.

In the end, I would read on to see what obstacles come his way, as it seems apparent that obstacles are coming. I say that because I assume that if the 36-hour marathon of getting things ship-shape for being at sea for half a year went well, then balancing his life (and the story) will mean some things just aren’t going to go as well in the future.

(Here’s more with Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake)

2. Is the character of Noah likeable, or interesting, enough?

I will say that he isn’t dislikable…

The tough thing with this question is that I have little or no info on Noah. No age, no description, and little background. General stats: he may live on a 38-foot sailboat (no name), docked somewhere (Florida? The Keys? Bahamas?), raced a 50-foot boat in Bermuda, is a published author, likes jazz and knows where jazz is played locally. Nothing here to dislike, and overall good potential of being likeable. 

However, I still have trouble getting ‘into’ him because I don’t know about HIM, his feelings, his reasons for doing this ‘round the world sailing race, why jazz means so much, etc. I know bits about the man, but I don’t know how these bits came to be parts of him, and which parts are strongest, and which will or may cause him trouble.

There’s enough here to make him interesting, he just needs some structure and grounding, so we aren’t all floating in white space together. Perhaps expanding just a tad on the Bermuda race? Perhaps this was very recent, and he encountered experiences that gave him pause about his skill levels? Perhaps he challenged himself to a duel by signing up for the make-or-break circumnavigation race, and part of him wanted to rise to that challenge and part wanted to leave the challenge untested? Some of these answers would allow readers to understand what battles, obvious to him or not, he is facing – and would allow readers to care, to root for him, or to support him in the decisions he makes in the future of the story.

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

3. Do you need to know more about him to care what happens to him?

Bingo… Yes (readers chime in please) – I need to know more about him and why he’s reacting as he does when his place aboard the 70-footer is confirmed. I need to know why a woman walking into Jubby’s Jazz Joint that evening is a big deal – or even a deal worth mentioning. I need to know if he notices because he’s been celibate, is contemplating being celibate for 5-7 months, or that there’s something special about her appearance/body language.

Readers only care if you give them a human being to care about. Readers are generous with their sympathy for and understanding of characters, and they enjoy being embroiled in their adventures and troubles and triumphs. Give us something about Noah that allows us to image his personality – this is important – his personality is the final blend of each day’s experiences, bound together to create his personal values and ideals. If Noah felt he needs to prove something to himself or challenge himself, let us know why this is important to him.

I love sailing books. I love editing sailing books, and the true sailors, those who heave to the calling of the sea, are a unique bunch. I bet you can make Noah a part of that very special group of folks. You have a solid beginning premise to build on, just grab the rigging lines and steer for the horizon! *grin*

(Here’s more with How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet)

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

8 comments:

  1. Like Maria said, this is a promising beginning, that doesn't dive into who Noah is the way it ought to.

    Who is Noah, what's the one thing we want to understand on the first page that will lead us to the rest of him? You might be going for the idea that he's more adrift (had to say it) than he realizes if he can put his life on hold suddenly... but that isn't quite coming through, you haven't captured the kind of familiarity and underplayed but prominent absence that could make that point. The main thing we get to go on is he seems almost indecisive, weighing his life this way. (That's actually *very* decisive to box up his life, but it seems the opposite because after the first line, there's not much passion about either staying or going.) Or is the first key to Noah something else?

    I do think he needs more feeling, one way or the other, after that juicy opening line. It's the fastest way to make us connect with a character. Especially, sailing is an interesting subject, but not every reader is already fascinated with it -- those who are on the fence want to be convinced, and those who do love it want to see that love in your story. So we want a couple of well-placed words to give an insider's sense of how thrilling and/or uncomfortable and dangerous this race will be. That would energize the premise and amplify whatever contrast it is he's feeling about it.

    Actually, I don't see why this scene begins here if it's only running for one page. It feels like an imbalance to begin with the call and a few paragraphs of setup, and then say "Thirty-six hours later" -- it's more natural to make this scene longer, or the next one equally short for a rapid-fire effect (which you probably can't if it's your Meet Cute), or else begin at the bar with him just thinking on or finishing up his race preparations. The last might be best; it can still carry all the weight you want to give it, and it'll feel more organic to have our first glimpse of the race plus the girl in the same scene for contrast.

    This is an interesting premise that could go a number of ways. I want to quickly see more about why the pieces are important to Noah, and who Noah is that's going to have to deal with them -- that's what can get this under way.

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  2. I had the same thought as Ken. Why not start the scene in the bar,maybe reviewing his checklist in his head, getting in his last "jazz fix" etc. Assume meeting the girl is key in the story, so putting them together when he is ready to leave for six months might be the opener. My curiosity is, what can they do about that? What's the "mystery" "relevance"? That sets up the intrigue for me...because I can't see where it would go if he already made a six month commitment to sail around the world. If their meeting is not the launching pin to the story, then you might need to reevaluate what the "hook" is for the opener. If it is, then whet our whistle for how he/they plans to solve that.

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  3. First thing I noticed was the name Noah and a boat - not sure that has anything to do with anything but the connection is, let's say, biblical.

    I like where this story could go, and that's great. I want to get to know Noah and want to go on this adventure with him. Because we don't know how the girl fits in (is she going to disrupt the trip, will she be on the boat too, etc.) it is hard to know which direction we the author is taking.

    However, if he is going on this boat, it reminded me of the opening of the movie Mortal Combat. Stay with me here - it has a point. Johnny Cage is somewhat fed up with his movie career. He gets a ticket to go on a ship to fight in Mortal Combat. It is the inciting incident that changes his life and has the ability to change his reputation. There is a stake for the character and a reason he wants to go. This has the same feel. An invitation that can undoubtedly change this character's life, but we want a glimpse how.

    At this point, we have no idea how old Noah is, that I would like to know as it grounds the story.

    Now the nitty gritty. Starting with heart racing seems a little cliche. And asking "what have I done?" - I'm assuming he is not yet committed, or he can back out, so at this point he hasn't done anything.

    We have repetition that takes us out of the reading - staring, hell yes, hell yeah. Easy fixes. Also, Hell Yes, followed by I Think weakens the scene. Hell yes feels like "I need a change and this is a chance for it". Or hell yes, "this will provide me with enough real-time material to write a sailing race story that no one can match." I'm looking for a reason why he wants out and I want to root for him to get it.

    The fourth paragraph feels like an info dump. I think we would be more in this scene if it was in action, and how much of that stuff do we need to know? Right now I feel I'm being "fed" a lot of this and that hell yeah feels hollow as we have already heard him say that.

    Next paragraph - I agree with Ken, it is a lot to skip 36 hours on the first page. Perhaps giving him a shorter time to deal with it, or having him go to the bar the night he receives the letter might help tighten the time frame. In Mortal Combat, Johnny Cage gets the letter and the next thing we see is him heading to the boat. We don't need to know about all the minutiae of leaving for a while, readers know that already.

    Last paragraph is intriguing. How is this woman going to change his life? We all want to know! Good Luck!

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  4. I agree with the previous comments, but would like to add something about the physical reactions that I've recently come to understand better in my own writing. Saying 'his heart raced' doesn't do much to connect the reader to the character. Readers connect better when you add why his heart is racing - maybe he's wondering if he will be good enough, for example. Or there's a big prize for winning and he's excited about the possibility of winning.

    As a writer, I was curious about one other thing - is he bored with his writing career? He seems much more excited about the boat competition. Is he one of those people who always needs a new challenge? Or maybe he's been a writer for many years and has become disillusioned with it?

    I get the impression that he's a pretty successful writer (large boat, fans that are waiting for his next book), so why is he willing to leave those fans hanging for 6 months? Is it the lure of the competition or disaffection with the writing career? Or both?

    This is an interesting premise and I look forward to seeing future revisions. It's not quite hooking me yet but I can see how it could!

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  5. I also had the same reaction as Lynne - you have a guy called Noah going on a big boat. Sounds familiar... I'm wondering if it's going to rain a lot. (And anticipating furry stowaways. You even have the correct number of crew for the ark!) If this wasn't an intentional reference you might want to consider changing your MC's name.

    I also wondered how Noah can afford a big fancy boat AND CAR! as a writer, and how it's okay for him to put off a release for six months and spend his time sailing instead of working. Unless he's a *very* famous rich author won't he need to write full time? How is he going to make his deadline if he's at sea crewing a boat? And if he puts off publishing by six months, surely there will be some financial fallout, or at least furious fans to deal with? Then again, maybe he inherited the money, or he used to work as an investment banker and is having a midlife crisis. I need to know more so I can get a handle on this character and start to understand what's motivating him and why this voyage matters.

    I do love the sailing part. I really enjoy reading that kind of adventure story for adults. It would be even better to see why Noah's going sailing: what he hopes to gain, or fears to lose, by it. I already want to read on because of the sailing, but a few small tweaks to show Noah's motivation would make this truly riveting.

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  6. Agree with the comments. I like Noah but it seems he's about to go on a slow journey of self discovery. To keep reading, I would need a promise of faster action from the first paragraph. For example, he would need to be reflecting in a physical challenge overcome while sailing.

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  7. Thanks all for the insightful comments. I like maybe opening in the bar. You've given me some things to think about.
    Don't know if this will entice you or turn you off, but in the Southern Ocean the boat gets in trouble and has to go into full survival mode. Noah and a female crew member have no choice but to fight for survival.

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  8. David - everyone loves a survival story - I would ask how can you foreshadow that in the opening. Is he fighting to survive his writing deadlines, his financial situation, etc. You certainly could start in the bar, having him rereading the letter of acceptance. There is so much you can do with this! Write on!

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