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Saturday, June 05, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Voice and Hooks in a Literary Opening

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through July 10.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Does the voice sound unique to the reader to get hooked?

Market/Genre: Literary Fiction

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

If you lived in Scotland in the 70s and 80s, I mean Shillong, India—the Scotland of the East, you probably bumped into me (By the way it is the capital of the state of Meghalaya and not Assam because it irritates me to no end, to correct folks from the heartland of India that the region east of Calcutta is NOT Assam!).

You know we have a character of our own and we are not a smorgasbord of identities all squished into one glob of white limestone or cement. We are a cloud adrift over a land of turbulence. We are the youngest, prettiest, proudest sister out of all the Seven Sisters of the Northeast and we are not ashamed to say that. We have the most breath-taking waterfalls, highest rainfall, rarest orchids, serene lakes surrounded by rolling hills, best Chinese food anywhere in the world and don’t forget we are the most romantic town in India. And there is one more secret. The women here rule the household because we are the only matriarchal society in the world. And so, if you are a guy and decide to fall in love with a beautiful Khasi lady in her traditional jainsem and decide to marry her and her name say is Jasmine Lyngdoh and your name is XY then your name will change to Mr. X Lyngdoh. Yes, and we would like to keep that way.

Back to my story. I was kind of famous, famous in a unique way. The only known South Indian Malayalee in town. We were lumped together into one ethnicity called the Madrasis even us who come from state of Kerala. A minority in a minority state. The tall, dark and handsome kid on the block. Now wait. If I said that I will be lying. The truth is I am dark skinned, of medium height, have a mop of black curly hair that resembles an Afro, a pair of John Lennon glasses and I am a gonk.

My Thoughts in Blue:

If you lived in Scotland in the 70s and 80s, I mean Shillong, India—the Scotland of the East, you probably bumped into me (By the way, it is the capital of the state of Meghalaya and not Assam because it irritates me to no end to correct folks from the heartland of India that the region east of Calcutta is NOT Assam!).

You know we [this is referencing all the Shillong-ites, right?] have a character of our own and we are not a smorgasbord of identities all squished into one [is this red because this is the first chapter? Will subsequent chapters have their number in red as well?] glob of white limestone or cement. We are a cloud adrift [my search reveals that Meghalaya means ‘the adobe of clouds’, so nicely done here.] over a land of turbulence. We are the youngest, prettiest, proudest sister out of all the Seven Sisters of the Northeast, and we are not ashamed to say that. We have the most breath-taking waterfalls, highest rainfall, rarest orchids, serene lakes [most serene? this needs a descriptor to keep the ‘best’ ‘highest’ etc. going] surrounded by rolling hills, best Chinese food anywhere in the world and don’t forget [this is where I decided the narrator is drunk] we are the most romantic town in India. And there is one more secret. [no previous secrets have been revealed, so –] The women here rule the household because we are the only matriarchal society in the world. [this, of course, isn’t true, it’s one of six in the world.] And so, if you are a guy and decide to fall in love with a beautiful Khasi lady in her traditional jainsem and decide to marry her and her name say is Jasmine Lyngdoh and your name is XY, then your name will change to Mr. X Lyngdoh. Yes, and we would like to keep that way.

Back to my story. [no story has been started – yet – now, if he began a tale at the outset, which then devolved into the drunken travelogue…] I was kind of famous, famous in a unique way. [this interests me…] The only known South Indian Malayalee [continuing my Googles, the info actually gave great insight into this character] in town. We were lumped together into one ethnicity called the Madrasis, even us who come from state of Kerala. A minority in a minority state. [this is fun and I’m grinning at this character’s humor] The tall, dark and handsome kid on the block. Now, wait. If I said that I will be lying. The truth is I am dark skinned, of medium height, have a mop of black curly hair that resembles an Afro, a pair of John Lennon glasses, and I am a gonk. [bingo! I learned this word from one of my Oz authors, so enjoy being validated that I guessed the narrator is blotto.] *grin*

The Questions:

1. Does this opening work?


In a way, yes… I had fun with the eight searches I did to ensure I would get the full information being expressed – the culture, etc. that was important to the strength of the material.

As mentioned, this is not a story—yet—but getting to know the character was interesting. I might want to know more about (assumed) him, but my interest is mostly driven by my usual interest in other cultures. All the searches allowed me to gather information that not only colored the material more deeply, but also relaxed me because your references were all on the nose. This is akin to my reading historical fiction that is packed with excellent research.

With literary fiction, I give an author more time to begin the story, unfold a character or location, and set up the whole journey. So far, the ‘story’ is a drunk guy who has a story to tell—once he gets all the expansive chatter out of the way. That chatter is important though, as it sets up a lot of things that squarely plant the reader in the locale and culture, as well as providing a strong connection to this character. I’d like to know his name, also.

(Here’s more with Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

I assumed that this person lived in Shillong when he was younger, but don’t know if this book is set in contemporary times or if the 60s and 70s were just last year. My impression is that this is someone younger, relating a tale of teen or 20s years; however, he also might be a drunk older guy who lives in the past and latches onto the new person at the local bar to retell that past.

What you’ve given us is more like a sketch and many readers may tolerate that, hoping to learn more about the narrator/protagonist and his situation, but others may not get enough out of this to read on.

I view literary works as having one of my crazed architect friends explaining multiple blueprints and how they all relate. It’s usually a long story that has many, many layers and, in the end, I have an incredibly detailed vision of their building—which I may never get out of my head. *grin* This, for you, can mean that you can write a story that can bring readers to tears, anger, joy and even epiphany, if you can continue to make learning about a character to be the equivalent of soaking in a hot bath on a cold day. The mind relaxes. The quirks of the story rest on the quirks of each character, and readers don’t mind floating along on the current you create.

I would give you another page or two to give me the opening to the story… I’m not hooked, but I like this character well enough to give you a chance to do so.

(Here’s more with How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

2. Does the voice sound unique to the reader to get hooked?

Hmmm – well, as mentioned above, I’m not really hooked, but I am curious. The voice is not unique, to me anyway. I’ve known people that communicated like this, especially when potted. This means that I identified with the character fairly quickly, decided he was drunk fairly quickly, and his talk wasn’t off-putting to me. All good things, just not enough for him to be ‘unique’ of voice.

However! What he spoke about was unique, and the strong feeling of humor was fun. I related his way of talking to an old oddball friend who is always a ‘happy’ drunk and tends to be very grand (think karaoke). I felt comfortable with this character. This is good and not good. My ‘view’ of this character, how you want me to see this character, might be too affected by my natural relating via my old friend. In other words, it could be more difficult to get me to see this character in the way I need to, for the sake of the story.

I did feel the voice was consistent and any missteps (notes in the material) were spot on with the disjointed discourse of a tipsy person. However, notes were made to point out the potential for irritating readers or simply making things confusing.

The voice works, but you’re asking it to carry a huge load—the material needs to be anchored/grounded to give it more depth. I missed no sensations, sounds, situational info, etc. The voice is there, the personality is clear, but at this point is just someone floating in space, so he can’t be held onto—which means he can be let go of really easily.

(Here’s more with How to Find Your Character's Voice)

This story would interest me because of the culture it lives within, but I need to know who this drunk guy is…

Lots of room to frame this scene. Like a painter, just give us some broad strokes so we can have a bit of perspective and have the fun of visualizing him.

Good luck and come back after you play with this!

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

4 comments:

  1. I'd call this unique, but not quite a hook for me.

    Humor and literary fiction are hugely personal things, and I'm a natural skeptic here because I don't read much of either, or travel. So I'm the reader who'll say:

    How much is there a method in this page's madness, or is the madness itself meant to be the only method? For instance, would it change the impressions we'll have of the story ahead if you mentioned something else in place of the matriarchy, or gave us our first look at the character through a tiny story instead of his physical description? Are those pieces chosen to be building blocks for what's to come (which is usual for literary fiction), or are they there to be random?

    Another example: I loved a phrase like "the youngest, prettiest, proudest sister out of all the Seven Sisters of the Northeast," but I found "in Scotland in the 70s and 80s, I mean Shillong, India—the Scotland of the East" much too jarring for an opening line. Or, would you want to break the second paragraph in two at the point you bring up the matriarchy? (Normally I'd say yes, but there's value in leaving it too: it promises it's the last purely general paragraph, before one more about the narrator and then getting closer to the story.)

    Random details for their own sake, even under the theory that it's funny and literary and character-appropriate, are just a tricky tightrope to walk. There's no conventional hook here, but could there be a quiet undercurrent of fear or desire or unease or something that hints which kind of character drama is coming?

    So this seems borderline to me. Some readers might be won over, while some (including some in this genre, I think) would wonder if you could think more about whether these lines are *exactly* the ones you want for your first page.

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  2. I get this is literary, and therefore a bit more time might be needed to get into the story, however, I really feel the story begins with "I was kind of famous, famous in a unique way." I love that as a first line. That would get me reading, get me interested. Before I care about the other stuff, I want to care about the narrator. I also love that he describes himself one way and then comes clean on how he really looks. Those two things would hook me - so why not start out with them? Once we are hooked, we will gladly follow.

    I did not know what gonk means. I still don't. I looked it up and it varies between a small furry teddy bar and a Scottish term for something I'd rather not write on this blog :)
    Point is, I would make sure this doesn't confuse your reader -

    Since the second question is about the voice - I think the voice kicks in in the third paragraph (which is why I would love to see it start there) and grounds the reader a bit- and I do like his voice when it starts here. I don't think the first two paragraphs land with his voice because we are still trying to figure out who he is, what is going on, and why we care.

    Regardless of what genre, I like to know who I am following. Once I am hooked on to the character, I am willing to invest in pages to see where the story is going. So good news, you seem to have a fun character, one that promises to entertain. Good luck!

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  3. I wrote this long comment that seems to have disappeared. I don't think I can recreate it, so here are the most important points:

    I didn't pick up that the character was drunk, so I was confused. Knowing the character was drunk makes it more interesting. I imagine that I'm sitting on a bus next to a drunken person (I also thought the character was female because she referred to being a sister), and the person is rambling on, and it's either going to be fascinating trip or really boring.

    If you convinced me on page one that it would be on the fascinating side then I would keep reading. It's not doing that for me yet, but I could see that by giving us a sense of where the character is, making the drunkenness clearer for slow readers like me, and giving a sense of the story to be developed, it could work quite well.

    Also, I don't read literary fiction as I find it develops too slowly for my taste, so please take my comments with a grain of salt. But I agree with Lynne about starting with a focus on the character rather than the setting, and that maybe a more engaging starting point might be the third paragraph.

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  4. Thank you Maria et all., This great feedback! Appreciate it. This will be a big help when I go to revise the first draft.

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