Saturday, December 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Dear Diary: Using the Journal Format in a YA Novel

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: Four

This week’s questions:

Does this opening chapter (since the story is just journal entries) work?

Is this an engaging hook/would you be willing to read a second entry just by these words?

Should I increase the number of words of each journal entry to 250?

What kind of world do you think when you read this?

Would this be suitable for YA?

(And would you use 'porridge' instead of 'congee'?)

Market/Genre: YA Dystopian


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: 'New Gaia' is a project in which humankind starts over in an eco-friendly way in the next life-sustainable planet. Upon finding out that she is the only person left on Earth, April travels across North America in hopes that she could contact that new planet and get rescued. Written as daily journal entries, each entry is exactly 200 words. This is the first entry.

April 1st.

When I woke up, the usually loud house is silent save for the television.

There is still noise in the house, so I got ready for school as usual.

It is raining by the time I got dressed so I decide to have breakfast. Since I am late already, it should be fine if I get punished on a full stomach, right?

There is only one pot of congee on the stove this morning. We need to go grocery shopping. I open the lid to see that the pot is almost empty. Moreover, the congee is cold. I heat it up and serve myself.

The congee is bland. I add salt and took a bite before searching for someone to pick me up and drive me to school.

The house is empty. The front door is unlocked. The cars are gone. How strange.

The television is only playing a re-run from last year. I haven’t seen this show before so I watch the episode while I ate.

It is still raining when I finished eating so I decide to finish watching the show.

No one came.

I should have cherished that congee. I was so ignorant then.

My Thoughts in Purple:

April 1st.

When I woke up, the usually loud house [is] was since she's referring to something that already happened silent save for the television.

There is still noise in the house, so I got ready for school as usual.

It is raining by the time I got dressed so I decide to have breakfast. Since I am [late already,] for what? it should be fine if I get punished on a full stomach, right?

There is only one pot of congee on the stove this morning. We need to go grocery shopping. I open the lid to see that the pot is almost empty. Moreover, the congee is cold. I heat it up and serve myself.

The congee is bland. I add salt and took a bite before searching for someone to pick me up and [drive me to school.] Nothing so far suggests this is in the future, but these are all good spots to show advanced technology and do a little work building

The house is empty. The front door is unlocked. The cars are gone. How strange.

[The television is only playing a re-run from last year. I haven’t seen this show before so I watch the episode while I ate.] This also feels very modern and not futuristic.

It is still raining when I finished eating so I decide to finish watching the show.

No one came.

[I should have cherished that congee. I was so ignorant then.] This line is intriguing

The questions:

Does this opening chapter (since the story is just journal entries) work?

Not yet, because it doesn't feel like a journal. Journals are written after something has happened, so they're in a strange mix of past and present tense and talk about the important events of a day (or whatever time period the entries are in). This is a present tense, happening in the moment, step by step outline of the narrator's morning. I don't get any sense of the narrator reflecting on it or writing it down, but stating what she does as she does it. If this is a journal, why does she choose to write about these things in this way? If she's compelled to write, odds are it'll be about the problem at hand, not her getting dressed and having breakfast.

The last line of this could make a nice opening line. That feels like something she's writing/reflecting on after the fact. Perhaps she starts there and then tells the tale of how she first realized something was off. If she's going to be the only character, then readers need to love/be intrigued by her right away. If they don't want to get to know her, they won't read on. Voice will be critical here.

(More on voice here and more on exercises to find you voice here)

Some excellent examples of the journal format are Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It, as well as John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began, and Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries. You might take a peek there for some ideas. Marsden and Pfeffer are both dystopian/apocalyptic tales so they fit your genre.

Journal stories aren't actually "journals" as we would truly write them. There's dialog and formatting just like a normal scene, but within the structure of a journal format. But they also need to hook the reader and offer them a story question they want an answer to. Something intriguing, a puzzle, a great character with a strong voice.

(More here on common problems with opening chapters)

Is this an engaging hook/would you be willing to read a second entry just by these words?
Not yet, because nothing it happening, and the tasks described are mundane tasks everyone goes through. I suspect this is trying to contrast the everyday with the bizarre fact that everyone is gone, but it's not coming across yet.

I'd suggest starting with her reaction to this event and whatever the first thing someone in this situation would actually write in a journal. She's not chronicling her step by step life, she's putting these words down for a reason. Disaster has just befallen her and she makes a choice to write it down. What is that reason? Why does she feel compelled to write? Even if you don't state it outright in the story (and you don't have to), if you know what that reason is, then that will color how you write this character. It'll give her more depth and you'll know what parts to write about.

Something made April decide to keep this journal. In Tomorrow When the War Began, the group of teens chose one person to keep track of everything so they had a record of what happened. They wanted to share what they did and why for the future when this was all over. Why does April decide to keep a journal? I think this will be central to what she writes about and how she puts it all down.

Should I increase the number of words of each journal entry to 250?
I'd suggest writing the entries to whatever length fits what you're trying to say each entry. 250 words is a page, a I doubt a page at a time is going to allow you to build up enough suspense and interest to keep a reader engaged. It's very likely going to feel too episodic and choppy.

There's also no reason why she'd limit herself to 250 words. She'd have access to all the journals she needed. Maybe she doesn't want to carry them, but again, she'd have access to gear all over the place. Cars (maybe she doesn't drive, but in this situation she'd likely try to figure it out), bikes, wagons, horses, etc. However, if you had a reason for this and it fit the story, you could make it work. I'd just caution against artificially limiting yourself.

If the shorter entries are important to the story, then I'd recommend taking a look at some of Ellen Hopkins' books. She writes in prose, but each "entry" is a poem and those poems tell a complete story. It's a different format, but it might give you some ideas on writing brief yet still crafting a story.

Though I think you'd be better off just lengthening your entries.

What kind of world do you think when you read this?
From this snippet, our world, our time, non-US (since I don't know what a congee is). There aren't enough detail to know more than that. The blurb suggests this is in the future (since humans colonized a new planet) so I'd suggest adding in some world building details to better set the scene. Show that this is in the future and the kind of technology they have. What changes have happened culturally. Whatever is key to know about this world when someone first picks up the book.

(More on world building and setting the scene here)

Would this be suitable for YA?
From the background blurb, it sounds like it could be a fun YA story. A journey of self discovery, the world gone mad, danger at every turn, hope in the distance.

I think there are some issues with this premise you might want to consider, though. The blurb mentions that she's the last person on Earth. Is this true or does she just think so? Because if she really is the only person on the planet, I think you're going to have a very difficult time keeping readers engaged.

Unless a lot of her journals are flashbacks, there's no one for her to talk to, so there will be little to no dialog. A book of solid exposition and internalization is a hard read. Even harder to make that compelling and keep readers interested (especially teen readers, who demand quicker pacing). If she does indeed run into other survivors, then it won't be an issue. You might try looking at Richard Matherson's I Am Legend for ideas here. That's a great "last man on Earth" story.

Would you use 'porridge' instead of 'congee'?
If this is set in the US and aimed at a US market, I'd say oatmeal or cereal. If this is in the UK, porridge would work. I'm not sure a US market will know what congee is (readers chime in here)

Overall, this could be an intriguing story, but I don't think it's there yet from a formatting standpoint. I'd suggest deciding why she's writing all this down (and do you even need that, versus telling the tale as it happens) to give you some direction. Then figure out what her voice sounds like and what she's going to write down and how. A journal format could work well, as it allows you to skip the boring parts and just write about the interesting and important elements. It's also more conversational, so it could help with the lack of dialog is she is the only character in the book.

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.

6 comments:

  1. I also think you are starting too early, or at least lingering too long on it for a journal format. It depends, of course, how far she is on her journey when she starts journaling. Looking back with wiser eyes is definitely going to read differently than the confusion of the moment. But this reads like you're trying to capture it in the moment. And unless she's writing in some electronic note form that only allows 200 words ala Twitter, I think it might get annoying to read an entire book in one-page chunks.

    Lastly, I liked your premise, but this opening didn't seem to fit it. A colonization of another planet is something that takes extraordinary planning, and yet her family basically leaves in the middle of their morning routine? And nobody does a headcount?

    If there's some natural disaster or other force in play here, you need to have that in your blurb. Otherwise I feel lost rather than intrigued.

    Hope this helps, and all the best with your writing! Thanks for putting your entry out there.

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  2. According to Wikipedia, congee is a kind of Asian porridge, so I guess the protagonist has a taste for exotic food.

    On the other hand, I do find it quite implausible that her family would leave her behind--unless they really hate her that much, which even then is unlikely, since the authorities would punish them for being careless.

    Still, it does seem she has no idea about it, so I'm just confused.

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  3. Why would you limit your entries to an exact number of words? I am intrigued as to whether you have a specific reason. I think it's going to make writing very difficult, as you have to arrange your sentences to fit the precise word limit, rather than simply writing well. And readers won't care.

    I am concerned that your grammar is all over the place. Some of it is past tense, some of it present tense - and I know its a draft, but this is what you typed up to present, so I'd have thought you would catch it if you didn't mean it to be that way. I suggest you choose one tense, either past or present, and stick with it.

    I agree that the story begins in the wrong place. I can see you trying to build suspense, but its more effective to simply have her discover everyone gone. I also agree that the last line is the most effective as a hook. Try starting with that and see where you go :-)

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  4. I don't mind so much about the congee reference - especially if the character has an asian background or this future world has.

    I also really liked the everyone is gone premise. (I'm assuming an inexplicable event has occurred leaving her alone).

    Best of luck.

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  5. I'd heard about cognee when I was taking a course of Asian herbal medication, otherwise I would have been none the wiser. To me, it suggests either the family were living on a simpler diet than contemporary people do (ie, less reliant on packaged food, otherwise why didn't she just mix her own cereal or pop some bread in the toaster?) or an Asian heritage.

    The 'Home Alone' scenario sounds like an original premise, but you really need to get some plausible backstory in soon. Otherwise it makes her family sound either stupid or extremely cruel.

    I agree with the comments about the 200 word diary entry length and the foreshadowing in the last line.

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  6. I'm intrigued about the 200 word limit, is it integral to the something within the story? I like the congee, it creates questions :) moreso than porrige. April 1st...I like that the unusual circumstance begins on April Fools Day (especially as she is called April too) - is this an unreliable narrator? I love unreliable narrators! If you're doing this in the present tense you could use the journal entry as a bit of 'built in' technology to the narrator (something like M T Anderson's Feed) which would be instant world build. I want to know more about this world and this girl's story. x

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