Sunday, December 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Easing You In: Making a Quiet Opening Work

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: Five

This week’s questions:

My story is a YA fantasy set in a world ravaged by darkness. I've found it a trying task to mesh world building and character development with a concrete goal in the opening, all while avoiding the dreaded “telling”.

What I’d like to know is: 1) Are the hints about the world enough to draw interest, or are they confusing and out of context? 2) Do you get a sense of the MC and a glimpse into how she views her world? Basically, are you inside her head enough? 3) Is MC’s goal (getting through an event that she loathes attending) strong enough to draw you in and make you want to know more?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Mushrooms thrive in the dark so they’re the only food that isn't rationed, and the pungent stink wafting through the house is a sure sign we’re having them for dinner. Again. What’s worse is that despite loathing all things fungi, my stomach growls as if to say, “Hey, we gotta eat to live, right?” Right.

I blow out an exasperated breath and plod downstairs, cursing the Forever Night, mushrooms, and my stomach in equal measure. I could probably deal if dinner were all I have to stress over, but there will be a birth tonight. Attendance is part of my council mandated training, and one of the few things I like even less than mushrooms.

Mother looks up as I pause beneath the stone archway that divides the common room from the kitchen, and lean my shoulder against the wall. She stirs a pot hanging over the hearth’s open flames. The firelight brings out the red in her hair, which she wears twisted into a braid over one thin shoulder. “Jazzlyn,” she says. “What took you so long?”

“I was just...” putting off the inevitable.

“Never mind. If you’re hungry, you’ll have to eat when we get back.” She drops the spoon on the counter and wipes her hands on the apron tied around her waist. “So." She grins. "Are you excited?”

Her eagerness sours my mood even more than the mushroom-tainted air. She is nothing if not the council’s ever-dutiful servant, and it’s all I can do to force a smile.

“Can’t wait.” To get this over with.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Mushrooms thrive in the dark so they’re the only food that isn't rationed, and the pungent stink wafting through the house is a sure sign we’re having them for dinner. Again. What’s worse is that despite loathing all things fungi, my stomach growls as if to say, [“Hey, we gotta eat to live, right?” Right.] This sounds modern to me. Is this supposed to be our world in the future or another world?

I blow out an exasperated breath and plod downstairs, cursing the Forever Night, mushrooms, and my stomach in equal measure. [I could probably deal] Same here if dinner were all I have to stress over, but there will be a birth tonight. Attendance is part of my council mandated training, and one of the few things I like even less than mushrooms.

Mother looks up as I pause beneath the stone archway that divides the common room from the kitchen, and lean my shoulder against the wall. She stirs a pot hanging over the hearth’s open flames. The firelight brings out the red in her hair, which she wears twisted into a braid over one thin shoulder. “Jazzlyn,” she says. “What took you so long?”

“I was just...” putting off the inevitable.

“Never mind. If you’re hungry, you’ll have to eat when we get back.” She drops the spoon on the counter and wipes her hands on the apron tied around her waist. “So." She grins. "Are you excited?”

Her eagerness sours my mood even more than the mushroom-tainted air. She is nothing if not the council’s ever-dutiful servant, and it’s all I can do to force a smile.

“Can’t wait.” To get this over with.

The questions:

Are the hints about the world enough to draw interest, or are they confusing and out of context?

They work for me. The only question I had was about setting, which would probably be answered by the cover copy. The setting feels like a fantasy setting, but some of the phrasing feels modern. If this is our world in the future, then it's fine. If this is a made up non-Earth world, then you might tweak those so they don't sound so modern teen.

Do you get a sense of the MC and a glimpse into how she views her world? Basically, are you inside her head enough?
Yes. She's feel real, not happy about her situation but handling it. I like her voice and that she's trying despite her feelings. I feel the inherent conflict, so I feel that is girl is going to do something and problems will occur because of it. No idea what they might be, but I'm hooked anyway.

Is MC’s goal (getting through an event that she loathes attending) strong enough to draw you in and make you want to know more?
Yes. I'm curious about the birthing, what this society is like, and Jazzlyn's role in it. It's a good example of a quiet goal that piques interest and draws you in. Good voice, a solid character, something going on I'm curious to know more of, and a character in conflict. I don't know the details to most of that, but I get enough that I feel grounded and want to know more without feeling confused.

Easy RLD today. I like this a lot and I'd read on.

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.

9 comments:

  1. This was an interesting real life diagnostics. Thanks to the writer for submitting this. To answer your questions:

    1. Yes, but everything is skeptical at this point. Consider what we know:
    This is likely a post-apocalyptic world/dystopia due to a) perpetual darkness b) rationing of food c) a 'common room' d) ceremony/ritual at the 'council' (there 'will be' a birth is slightly discomforting), e) lack of electricity.

    2. The voice worked well, except for the possible 'modernisms' that crept in (assuming this is not set in the present/future day). If food is rationed and the protag's family only have mushrooms to eat, in the WiPs current state, it sounds like this 'change' in the world is very recent and the teenage (?) protag is 'over it' already (but realistically, wouldn't she be at least happy in the fact that they aren't starving?).

    3. To be honest, no. But I might read a little longer just to learn what the birth is about. I felt bombarded with mushrooms (4 times it appears not including 'fungi'!) and I wanted to know more about WHY she doesn't want to go to the birth.

    Other things:
    1. "beneath the stone archway that divides the common room from the kitchen". This could be cut in its entirety. If you want to keep common room, slip it in there or somewhere else. Cooking and fire suggests a kitchen.
    2. "tied around her waist" could also be cut. Where else would the apron be tied?
    3. 'Jazzlyn' as a name really pulled me out of the story. I really wasn't expecting it. It sounded so contemporary that IF your story is set a few decades or further in the past, I just wouldn't believe it.

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  2. Here are my nitpicks, because I really like this and would definitely read on:

    1. I agree with the modernisms. If this is a whole different world than Earth, then you need to keep away from modern language.

    2. Unlike virtuefiction, I like the detail of the stone archway dividing the common room from kitchen, as it provides some nice info about the immediate setting, which is definitely important (they'd just be floating heads in this scene without it).

    3. In the opening sentence, the detail about mushrooms being the only food not rationed felt odd there to me - like you're explaining flat-out about this world. I feel like it's an important detail that could be added in a tad later in the story. It just felt stuck in, especially in the first sentence where I don't think it belongs.

    4. The phrase "her eagerness sours my mood" comes off as telling to me. You can get further in her head here to show us that her mom's eagerness makes her mood worse (since her mood's already sour, anyway). What can she think to herself that would reveal this to the reader without telling us?

    Those are all fairly nitpicky, though. Great job overall!

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  3. I liked this a lot and am sincerely disappointed it's not a real book I can read right now. I have a couple of nitpicks, but I hope you won't let them get you down ...

    1. I agree about the modern language. Personally, I felt she sounded too much like today's typical moody teen, lol! So good job in a way ;-) I found her sour internal voice increasingly off-putting

    2. The name Jazzlyn definitely took me out of the story, and especially after learning her mother is a conservative type. Would she have named her daughter such a sparkly name? But I know how connected we get to our character's names, so feel free to ignore me.

    3. I agree about the mushrooms going on for too long. I thought it was an excellent beginning, but after the second paragraph I'd have let them go. I disagree with Chris, I thought the first sentence was excellent and told me all I needed to know thus far about the setting.

    4. I like my books super-subtle, and your first sentence informed me adequately and in a clever way about the night. Therefore I found the mention of the Forever Night unnecessary and telling. I think it could stand waiting to be mentioned for a couple more pages or so. That was really the only moment where I felt like I could see the writer at work behind the scenes.

    5. "Mother looks up as I pause beneath the stone archway that divides the common room from the kitchen, and lean my shoulder against the wall." This sentence is ungrammatical and a bit confusing. Instead of "and", may I suggest a full stop and then going on with I lean ..., perhaps showing how and why she leans, to reveal more of her personality.

    Sorry for so many remarks, I really did enjoy this very much and I hope you get it written and published so I can read it in full.

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  5. Thanks so much to everyone who read and offered suggestions! I'll definitely put them to good use while revising.

    And a giant THANK YOU to you, Janice. Your blog was the first I found after I decided to give this crazy writing thang a try. The information and tips you share are invaluable, and I'm always sending my writerly friends links to your posts! I really appreciate the time you take to help us aspiring authors. Your karma reserve must be overflowing. :D

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  6. I think this is an intriguing snippet. The pace is good and her thoughts on the dialogue made me smile. Good job.

    I agree with the comments about the modern tone to some of the thoughts, such as gotta eat, right? not so much that it sounds current, (I think you can get away with that in YA) but that it sounds like a modern Western sentiment where the food supply - for most at least- is guaranteed. It sounds like the mind set of someone who can easily find something else to eat if what is on offer is unsatisfactory. Which means that if deprivation is something that your MCs face on a daily basis, you might have to work harder to make it sound authentic. Remember the adage from last century -hunger is the best sauce!

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  7. Hi,

    I'm not as big a reader of YA, and the only modern dystopian novel I've read is Janice's "The Shifter." But I love the voice in general.

    1. I'm going to give the exact opposite opinion of those above. I liked the "modernism" in the MC's voice because it does sound authentic teen, yet it's not reading cliched to me, and even in historical novels on EARTH, teens in 1941 still talked differently than the adults or little kids the same as now, and even in the future, most people don't talk like their in a Shakespeare-style space opera, right?

    If this is meant to be futuristic or alternate historical thing, I can understand the backlash, but the main point is to hook the reader and engage with a solid voice, and just as an aside, I'd hope agents and editors on average understand that the best of us writers are getting as close to "Greatness" as we can get on our own. Especially if we can't afford working with freelance editors, and depend on the kindness of beta-readers, who fit us in the margins of their own writing if they're writers, too.

    Anyway-

    2. I was interested, and as someone who normally shys away from dystopian/post apocalyptic fiction, you at least didn't start out in a way that made me feel shaky.

    3. I didn't really mind the mushroom thing, I know writers harp on using the same word too many times on a page, but I'd rather read about mushrooms than a bloody battle right out of the gate. Maybe that's just me being a Foodie of sorts.

    Good luck with this project, I can't tell you how many times I had to redo the opening of my last middle grade novel, because people kept getting confused about what the heck my story is. It's more or less as final as it can be pre-publication (I've not sold it yet).

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  8. Most welcome Cheryl Anne, and I'm so glad you're finding the blog helpful :) The blog is actually my way of paying it forward, and paying back all the great folks who helped me when I was starting out.

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  9. I loved this and I lovd the modern feel to the voice...I personally cannot stand 'fantasy' or 'make it feel like some weird historicalesque' type voice - so the modern feel was a big draw to me, made it fresh and bucking the usual trend. x

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