Saturday, September 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Do You Get Her? Are the Character and Motivations Coming Through?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life 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 I diagnose them on the blog. 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 Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Seven

This week’s questions:

I've struggled to find the right opening. I have too many to count. I am concerned whether Kyra's motivation is coming through. Is there enough internalization? Do you have sense of who Kyra is? Are you hooked?

Market/Genre: YA fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I grabbed the hem on the side of my worn dress and wiped my sweaty palms. Only soft snores disturbed the silence. My trembling fingers reached for the doorknob. The whispering stone beckoned, drawing me back. I couldn’t ignore the pull.

A bed creaked, and I froze. I glanced over my shoulder. Katherine padded away from her bed. Lightning sliced the sky, and the small buttons on her long white nightgown flashed. I loved lightning storms, but tonight was different.

“Kyra, since when do you break curfew?” She raised an eyebrow.

As if you are Miss Perfect. Mind your own business, I thought. But her wealthy father meant she could break rules and as a ward, I couldn’t. I bit back the rude words on my tongue for the hundredth time. “Nothing much.” A rumble of thunder drowned out our voices. I scanned the beds for movement.

“Headmistress Thorne will be thrilled to throw you out on the streets with the rest of the trash.” She smirked.

I hated myself for just standing there and enduring her taunts.

“I can’t wait to tell Victoria. Miss Good Girl broke a rule.” Katherine gazed right at Victoria’s bed among the rows.

Katherine wouldn’t dare wake the headmistress, but Victoria would.

She snickered, “Well, what are you waiting for? Go on then. Or are you too scared after all?”

I shrugged off the usual ridicule, but I wasn’t weak or faint of heart. I grabbed the cold knob and slipped from the dormitory.

My heart hammered. The darkness closed in and turning back sounded better, but the runes etched on the stone called out with every beat of my heart. “All this for a hunk of rock.” Maybe I was losing my mind. I’d read about a psychotic break once. Still, I couldn’t disregard the runes over powering my other thoughts.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I grabbed the [hem on the side of my worn dress and wiped my sweaty palms.] This feels a little distant despite the first person. Perhaps rephrase to put this more in her head and feel more internal. "I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my dress." Only soft snores disturbed the silence. [My trembling fingers reached for the doorknob.] Same here. She's reaching for the door and her fingers are trembling. Her fingers aren't doing it on their own. It's a subtle change but it affects how close the reader feels to the POV [The whispering stone beckoned,] How? This could be a good spot to show what she's feeling drawing me back. [I couldn’t ignore the pull.] This is a good spot for some internalization. What is she feeling? What is she hoping for?

A bed creaked, and I froze. [I glanced over my shoulder.] Perhaps a quick internal thought before this line? The creak makes her freeze, but is there anything that makes her look over her shoulder? Perhaps just have her hear the creak and spin around? Katherine padded away from her bed. Lightning sliced the sky, and the small buttons on her long white nightgown flashed. Love the lightning and symbol of doom it conveys [I loved lightning storms, but tonight was different.] Perhaps have her think about something else, like how she feels about Katherine being there? She's supposed to be scared, and reflecting on what she loves about lightning steals the tension. There's a threat and obstacle to her goal. How does she feel about that and what does she plan to do?
“Kyra, since when do you break curfew?” She raised an eyebrow.

As if you are Miss Perfect. Mind your own business, I thought. But her wealthy father meant she could break rules and as a ward, I couldn’t. I bit back the [rude] don't need since we can see they were rude words words on my tongue for the hundredth time. [“Nothing much.”] this doesn't track with her question. "Since when?" "Nothing much." A rumble of thunder drowned out our voices. [I scanned the beds for movement.] I like that she's worried others might wake up, but this is a good spot to let her think about how Katherine is going to affect her plans to leave. And what that might mean to her. What will happen if she doesn't go? What will happen if Katherine tattles?

[“Headmistress Thorne will be thrilled to throw you out on the streets with the rest of the trash.” She smirked.] I'm not getting this character. She starts with questions about breaking curfew, now she's happy to get rid of her. If she doesn't care if Kyra breaks a rule or not, but wants her gone, then why stop her? Why not just wait til she leaves and go get the headmistress? I don't understand her motives in this conversation.

[I hated myself for just standing there and enduring her taunts.] Telling since I haven't really seen her do this. Show me by what she thinks and does. Does she clench her hands? Hold back another zinger? Berate herself? Try to persuade Katherine to overlook this?
“I can’t wait to tell Victoria. Miss Good Girl broke a rule.” [Katherine gazed right at Victoria’s bed among the rows.] Perhaps have her start walking toward her? Make the threat more real so Kyra has something to fear and act upon?

Katherine wouldn’t dare wake the headmistress, but Victoria would.

[She snickered, “Well, what are you waiting for? Go on then. Or are you too scared after all?”] Again, does she want to help Kyra or hurt her? If she wants her to leave, why stop her and have this conversation?

[I shrugged off the usual ridicule, but I wasn’t weak or faint of heart.] Telling some, and she calls her scared, not weak or faint of heart. Show me she's not by what she does. Perhaps have her answer Katherine, since she's only said "nothing much" so far in this scene and Katherine has done all the talking. It's also a good spot for her to weigh the options. Is the draw of the stone worth getting kicked out? I grabbed the cold knob and slipped from the dormitory.

My heart hammered. Good spot for some internalization on how she feels about what just happened. The darkness closed in and [turning back sounded better,] she says this, but I'm not getting a sense that she wants to go back. How is she feeling? but the runes etched on the stone called out with every beat of my heart. [“All this for a hunk of rock.”] Perhaps be clearer about what "all this" means to her so readers understand the stakes Maybe I was losing my mind. [I’d read about a psychotic break once.] Could be something fun she thinks about when she feels the draw and wonders if she should go or not [Still, I couldn’t disregard the runes over powering my other thoughts. ] Not sure what this means.

The questions:

I am concerned whether Kyra's motivation is coming through.
I can tell she's feeling drawn to runes on a stone, but I'm not getting much more than that. She's also risking something by sneaking out, but she doesn't seem concerned about this, so the stakes don't feel high. She doesn't do anything but stand there and take what Katherine throws at her, then she leaves and acts as if this isn't a big deal. I don't get the sense that she cares about what's going on, she's just acting out plot.

(More on motivation and goals here)

Is there enough internalization?
Tastes vary, but not for me. I think adding a few lines here and there will clarify the motivation, up the tension, and make the stakes clear. Perhaps start this scene a tad earlier when she feels the draw of the stone. If she's being compelled to go to it, show that struggle and make it clear what she's risking. Perhaps let her think about what she'll lose if she goes, what she will gain if she does. If she's losing her mind. If she's scared, what thoughts will go through her head? When Katherine wakes up and confronts her, how does she feel? They clearly have a history, but I'm not sure what that is.

Also, what's Katherine's motivation here? Is she just being a snot or will she actually get Kyra kicked out? How much of a threat is she? If she's no threat, then she's nothing to worry about. But if she is, then Kyra leaving means she just got herself kicked out of school. Knowing that will probably affect her a lot more strongly than the scene shows.

(More on internalization here)

Do you have sense of who Kyra is?
I assume she's poor and an orphan from the worn dress and ward comment, and she doesn't stand up for herself even though she doesn't think she's weak. She feels a little hollow still since I don't know why she's doing what she's doing. More internalization will flesh her out though. Perhaps think about the critical traits you want readers to know about her and see if there's a way to make those apparent here. For example, if she's smart and witty, maybe she verbally duels with Katherine and gets away. Or if she's ruthless, she tricks her and locks her up so she can't squeal. Whatever works for the character and the story.

(More on emotional clarity here)

Are you hooked?
Not yet, because there's no strong mystery or story question I want an answer to, paired with a character I was to spend time with. The pieces are here, though. The stone could be interesting if I knew more about what it was or even how it affects Kyra. And if I felt Kyra was a good or interesting person risking something major for it, then I'd want to see where it went and what will happen to her. If she gets kicks out, what then? Does that mean she's homeless or can she just go to another school? What is she risking by following a strange and compelling pull?

This scene feels like one that is the result of a decision Kyra has made (like scene two), so perhaps start the story a little earlier. How much earlier will depend on the story itself. It might be worth it to show what Kyra's normal day is like so readers see what she's risking and the kinds of people she's dealing with. If she's constantly put down and ridiculed by Katherine and her friends (I assume she has a gang of friends who back her), and exhibits other traits that make readers like Kyra, then they see the first moment she gets the compulsion to go after the stone (or the moment when she decides she has to no matter what), they'll probably root for her when she sneaks out and go for it. And they'll know what she's risking and what Katherine is capable of doing. The threats will be real.

(More on opening hooks here)

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, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

8 comments:

  1. "She's reaching for the door and her fingers are trembling. Her fingers aren't doing it on their own. It's a subtle change but it affects how close the reader feels to the POV." This little gem has really clicked for me. Making the fingers 'act/feel' rather than the character. Wow. Now I want to go over my MS to check if I did this! Thanks Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Janice,

    Thank you, thank you for the amazing and thorough critique. I've been concerned whether this opening started in the right spot or revealed Kyra's character. Your edits make so much sense. I can't wait to apply them.

    After you mention it, you are right, this does feel more like a second scene because it truly is. If I keep this opening spot, I will definitely fix this. I know the scene before this, but the reader doesn't.

    My original opening started with the errand that lead Kyra to the stone. Decisions, decisions, but great advice to apply.

    I appreciate your time and wisdom!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brilliant critique! (You can tell I'm becoming a really huge fan of ya, right? ;))

    Since you've already hit all possible nails straight on the head, the only thing I might add is that an opening must cannot afford to be subtle. The reader has no idea who the characters are, what anything is, and so things must be spelled out clearly, not hinted at. Subtlety is something to be used much later in a story. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. AJ, you'll like Monday's post then :) I decided to elaborate on that.

    Glacier, most welcome, glad I was able to help!

    Vero, aw, thanks :)

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  5. This is perfect timing--I've struggled with this very thing in my YA fantasy.

    I learned too late that I couldn't just rely on cool fantasy elements in my writing...there has to be a good story, a sequential plot, and realistic character motivations to make the cool fantasy elements believable to readers.

    This really helps me as I revise and continue to fix the story problems in my manuscript. Thanks as always, Janice!

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  8. I felt Kyra was a good or interesting person risking something major for it, then I'd want to see where it went and what will happen to her.gout in ankle

    ReplyDelete