Putting things in context

In last week’s post, “Don’t confuse your reader,” we discussed some writing “do’s and don’ts” that can help us avoid losing readers. I’ll revisit a couple of those points in today’s critique. My comments follow in the bullets.
 

     Dani struggled to haul another load of class materials across the campus to where she’d had to park her pickup truck. Just a few minutes late, and she’d not been able to find a spot closer to the building where her temporary classroom was located. The renovations should have been finished weeks ago, but all the rain had shut down construction, and the ground was so saturated that every step felt like the entryway to a bottomless pit.
     A new session, actually a completely new program, would be starting soon and she was eager to get her room organized and ready to go. She stopped to set the box down for a minute and wiped her dripping face. She loved living in the southeastern part of the country, but the muggy summers were sometimes hard to take. Dani felt something hit her lightly on the back and turned to see her friend and colleague, Suzanne Feltenburg, trying to get her attention. The balled-up piece of paper that Suzi had thrown started soaking up water, and Dani bent down to pick it up, then glanced at her friend’s face. 

     “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”, she signed with one hand as she shoved the paper in her pocket. Suzi hesitated, then blurted out with rapid signs, “They’ve found another body.”
    “What?!” Dani muttered under her breath as she signed back in reply to her friend’s obviously uncomfortable gaze. “This is getting ridiculous. The science department said they’ve accounted for all the animal cadavers that were used in the biology classes this year, and the students involved in illegally burying them have already been identified, so what’s the deal?”
     Suzi signed, “That’s the problem. This one is human.”

  • I enjoyed the tone and voice of this first page very much. I do think it could use some tweaking to heighten its impact. For example, I think the use of the past perfect tense (“she’d had to park”) in the first sentence serves as a drag on the opening. I would keep the action in simple past tense for the first sentence, then provide the explanation of why the truck was parked in a problematic spot.
  • The introduction of the verb “sign” was a bit confusing to me at first. It was only after I kept reading that I figured out that she was using sign language. Whenever you introduce a verb or phrase that you think might be unfamiliar to your readers, you need to introduce it with enough context so that its meaning is clear from the start. Then you can use it freely. That said, some readers might find the constant use of “sign” as a substitute for “said” a bit distracting. If I were the writer, I’d consider establishing the signing at the beginning of every scene, and then switch to the less intrusive “said.”
  • Try to use fresh similes. “Bottomless pit” is a bit of a cliche. 
  • This is just a nit, but the names Suzi and Dani seem overly similar–two syllables, ending in “i”. I’d leave Suzanne’s name as is, or have her nickname be something else. The more you can do to differentiate your characters for the reader, the better.
  • Dani’s dialogue-explanation of the animal cadaver background is a bit long and stilted. It might be more effective to use a couple of short exchanges between your two characters to provide the same background.
  • I really liked the ending. I’d keep reading.

Other thoughts, TKZ gang?

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8 thoughts on “Putting things in context

  1. My impression is that there is a lot of rationalizing going on here. As a reader, I would’ve gotten the point of the scene by just knowing that Dani is walking across campus with a load of class materials. I don’t really need a rationalization explaining why she couldn’t park closer. If the construction becomes relevant later, I might then realize why she was walking across campus at the beginning, or I might not even care.

    By mentioning the southeastern part of the country, I can’t help but wonder which country. It might be better to either name the country or drop that reference altogether. In my opinion, the following would read better:

    Dani struggled to haul another load of class materials across campus to her pickup truck. She was eager to get her room organized and ready to go for the new session. She stopped to set the box down for a minute and wiped her sweating face. Dani felt something hit her lightly on the back and turned to see her friend and colleague, Suzanne Feltenburg.

    “What’s wrong? What’s happened?” she signed with one hand as she shoved the balled up paper her friend had used to get her attention in her pocket.

    Suzi hesitated then blurted out with rapid signs, “They’ve found another body.”

    “What?!” Dani muttered under her breath as she signed back. “This is getting ridiculous. The science department accounted for all the animal cadavers and identified the students responsible, so what’s the deal?”

    Suzi signed, “That’s the problem. This one is human.”

  2. I would start with, “They found another body.” Then I would suggest eliminating most of the “hads” and the background info. Like Jim keeps preaching: Act first, explain later.

    I found the story interesting so far, and I would give it a few more pages.

  3. I grew up in a place in Ohio near another place where a bunch of Satanist cult types used to sacrifice animals and dump them in the woods. It was really creepy. Barns with blood painted pentagrams and candles.
    Still I loved taking long walks down wooded back roads. At age 15 or so I took a long walk without telling my folks how long I’d be gone. Several hours later I came home to discover that my step-father had gone searching for me, armed and upset. Turned out that they had heard on the news while I was out that human bodies had been found in one the Satanist’s barns.

    That being said, the general context of the opening got my attention because it connected to a memory. Therefore, I would keep on reading, just to find out if it was like my own realities.

    on a side note, my word verification thingy for this post was “fartilam”. I instantly got a new image in my mind…one of a village in medieval England that smelled of rotten eggs all year long.

    Who comes up with these things??

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