Sunday, November 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Off to School: Would You Read On?

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: Six

This week’s questions:

Do you think the reference to throwing up puts readers off? Does it sound like the voice of a 12-year-old girl? Does it work and make you want to read more?

Market/Genre: MG fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

On the drive to Miss Lucinda’s School of Charm I almost lose my breakfast…twice. Charming, right? But I want to make a good impression on the other girls, and throwing up is probably not the best way to do that, so I manage to keep it together. I focus on the masses of pink roses that climb the fence surrounding the red-brick school buildings. My parents and I drive up to the large iron gates and I pull my cat, Bitty, onto my lap. At least I didn’t have to leave him behind.

After my parents got the acceptance letter from the school we met with Miss Lucinda, who turns out to be this super old lady with black hair that must be dyed. I can actually look her directly in the eye even though I’m only twelve, but her gaze makes me feel about the size of Bitty.

Anyway, Miss Lucinda convinced Mom and Dad that charm school is the perfect place for a girl who’s destined to take over the family business in hospitality, but doesn’t particularly ooze hospitable-ness. And then there’s my temper, which tends to make things go a little wonky when I’m upset. I sat through most of the interview checking out Miss Lucinda’s office, which is full of old books, mirrors and a tea set. An old tea set from the look of it. Oh, and doilies. Actual, real lace doilies. What have I done?

But we decided, okay, mostly my parents decided but I agreed, that this school could be good for me. I don’t have any siblings and it might be fun to live with girls my age.

My Thoughts in Purple:

On the drive to Miss Lucinda’s School of Charm I almost lose my breakfast…twice. Charming, right? [But] Don't need, the but makes it sound like throwing up is okay. As in "this is bad, but it's okay anyway" I want to make a good impression on the other girls, and throwing up is probably not the best way to do that, so [I manage to keep it together.] could cut since she's goes on to describe what she's doing to keep it together I focus on the masses of pink roses that climb the fence surrounding the red-brick school buildings. My parents and I drive up to the large iron gates and I pull my cat, Bitty, onto my lap. At least I didn’t have to leave him behind.

[After my parents got the acceptance letter from the school we met with Miss Lucinda,] I'm jarred here because I don't know where I am. Last paragraph I was driving in, now I'm in a flashback/memory. You might consider a transition statement here so readers know she's thinking about the first time she met Miss Lucinda [who turns out to be this super old lady with black hair that must be dyed. I can actually look her directly in the eye even though I’m only twelve, but her gaze makes me feel about the size of Bitty.] if she's remembering, this would be past tense. The present tense makes me think she's here now experiencing this.

Anyway, Miss Lucinda convinced Mom and Dad that charm school is the perfect place for a girl who’s destined to take over the family business in hospitality, [but it? doesn’t particularly ooze hospitable-ness.] How? What about the school is inhospitable? On a second read I realize this sentence refers to the narrator not oozing hospitableness. Since she's been talking about the school, I thought she was referring to that, not herself [And then there’s my temper, which tends to make things go a little wonky when I’m upset.] telling here, so perhaps look for an spot where you can show her temper [I sat through most of the interview checking out Miss Lucinda’s office, which is full of old books, mirrors and a tea set. An old tea set from the look of it. Oh, and doilies. Actual, real lace doilies. What have I done?] Since most of this opening is a flashback to the day she first met Miss Lucinda, perhaps start there? It can go from the acceptance to go to the school to them arriving.

But we decided, okay, mostly my parents decided but I agreed, that this school could be good for me. I don’t have any siblings and it might be fun to live with girls my age.

The questions:

Do you think the reference to throwing up puts readers off?

Didn't bother me at all. There was nothing graphic about it, and it shows how nervous the narrator is.

Does it sound like the voice of a 12-year-old girl?
Yes. I like the voice here, and she sounds like a kid, though one who's likely mature for her age. She seems to have been brought up that way (expected to be part of the family business), so it fits her character.

Does it work and make you want to read more?
Yes and no. I'd read on a little more because I like the voice, but there are some things that jarred me in this opening. I didn't feel grounded, so I wasn't sure where or when I was in most of it. I also had some premise questions.

It starts off with the narrator and her parents driving into the school in present day, then it jumps back to talk about how they first met the headmistress. Since the flashbacks also stay in present tense, I'm not sure when this is happening. Is she talking about this after the fact and this is the first meeting after all, or is this all a memory? I suspect it's just a memory catching readers up, but it's a little confusing. Especially for the younger readers it's aimed at.

(More on incorporating backstory and setup here)

I'd suggest one of three things:

1. If the flashback is what matters, start with that first meeting. They're at the meeting, the narrator doesn't really want to go, but gets forced into it. She has reservations readers can worry about, anticipations they can be curious about as well. Then break scene/chapter and go to her first day. This could also give you an opportunity to explain why she's going there and for how long.

2. Cut the flashback stuff and write the scene as it unfolds, strengthening the narrator's goal of trying to make a good impression and make friends. (Though on a second read, if she's not hospitable, does she care all that much about making friends?) Does it matter that readers know all about Miss Lucinda and the first meeting before they get there? That doesn't seem to be moving the plot, but wondering what kind of impression and how the other girls are is more compelling. First days of school are always stressful when you're 12. (Especially if she has trouble with her people skills. Readers will be waiting to see what she does to mess it up)

3. Make the flashback information more clear that this is a memory, and make her memory matter to the scene itself. Make it more than just background infodump.

(More on flashbacks here)

I suspect some of this might be throat clearing, and if you read on a few more paragraphs the perfect opening is right there once she arrives at the school.

As for the premise issue: I actually went to charm school when I was younger, and it was a local school I attended a few nights a week for six months. Are there boarding school charm schools? Is this more of a finishing school? (the name could be the same) If so, where does this take place? Because finishing school feels very European to me, and the narrator feels very American, so I'm unsure where this takes place.

While I like the idea of her being groomed to take over the family business, 12 feels a little young to be preparing for that. She has ten years before she'd be doing it. Why send her now and not at 16? And why did Miss Lucinda have to convince them this was a good idea? They had to apply to the school, so they must have thought it was a good idea or they never would have done it in the first place.

You mentioned her temper, so it that the reason why? Is her temper causing trouble in the family business? Do they run a posh hotel somewhere and she helps out, but is causing trouble by losing her temper with guests? And this is their plan to fix that?

It's all plausible if set up right, but I questioned it just enough that it pulled me out of the story. If I can't accept the premise, I can't get into the book. You might consider answering a few of those questions up front to help ground the reader. Maybe this is just a summer program, or the parents have a good reason for sending her here. I wanted to know why she's here, for how long, and what the deal is that got her here. I don't think you need to explain everything (for example, she's here due to her temper and something she did, but keep the details of what that was until you're ready to reveal it. Provide context, but still maintain mystery), but a few more details would clear all this up. (and it might not bother others, so chime in here folks).

(More on context here)

Overall it's a good start, and with a little tightening and clarifying it could be a strong opening.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks very much, Janice. Your critique offers a lot for me to think about. I especially appreciate your three suggestions for grounding the scene.

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  2. Great voice and drafting of what looks to be an intriguing story, Heather!

    My own WiP has the protag vomit in the opening chapter, so a mere reference to it certainly doesn't put me off. If this is MG or YA, perhaps readers would be more engrossed if the protag had in fact thrown up before the drive, when no one was looking?

    Regarding the 12-year-old voice, this line was absolutely stellar:
    "... super old lady with black hair that must be dyed."

    "Must be dyed" is such a great addition. However, the word "super" seems a little too childish when the same protag later goes on to use the word "hospitality". The latter seems more like the author talking.

    If the protag is wanting to make a good impression, how about let us know what she is wearing? You could work it into the vomit reference, such as "I almost lose my breakfast on my neatly-pressed, white smock". Just a suggestion! :)

    I'm not sure what time period this is set in, but the word "check out" jumped at me. It a) sounds contemporary and b) describes your protag to be walking around and looking at everything despite sitting absolutely still before the daunting Miss Lucinda. Also, is it necessary to say that she sat through "most of" the interview"? Why would she have been doing otherwise?

    I'd love to see what direction this story takes. Great job!

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  3. I really like the voice. I'd probably read more. I agree that it's a little confusing when flashback is in the present tense though.

    P.S. Didn't know how charm schools were called in English. In Russian we call them differently. Knowing it was a fantasy novel, I thought it was a magic school first :D

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