Saturday, January 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Crafting Journal Format Novels That 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: Seven

This week’s questions:

Does this entry work as an opening? Do you get a sense of Kenzie's voice, or is that something I need to work on? Is this something that makes you want to read more about these characters? Do you get that there is a closeness between Kenzie and Lauren, and also her family?

Market/Genre: YA contemporary in journal format


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Kenzie, the narrator, has recently lost her best friend Lauren, and feels like she is embarking on her senior year alone. The night before school starts she has dinner with Lauren's family and they give her a gift: journals Lauren wrote for each year of school since seventh grade. Kenzie, surprised by the gift because she had no idea the journals existed, decides that she will take over where Lauren left off and write a journal of her senior year so that Lauren's collection will be complete.

August 15th

I went to dinner at Lauren’s house tonight, and it was the strangest feeling because it’s only the second time I’ve been there since she died. The first time was after the funeral, but that hardly counts because of all the other people and all the casseroles. You would think that the people bringing food would take the time to figure out that her mom has that weird aversion to things that can be served in a casserole dish, but they didn’t. They brought their casseroles anyway, and I sat in the kitchen with my mom and Lauren’s brother Luke and wondered if anybody but me knew that all that food was going straight into the trash.

I’m not going to lie—I wasn’t sure if I could handle tonight. Going there is hard now, and today of all days was even worse since school starts tomorrow and Lauren won't be there and I will. I feel so guilty about that, even though I have no reason to, and when her mom called last week I tried to say that to her without actually saying it. But I forgot that her mom has the best ear for bullshit in the entire world. It took her about two seconds to figure out what I was really getting at, and she just said, “Kenzie, don’t be ridiculous. We want to see you, and I have something for you. It’s your senior year, and I think you’ll want them for your first day.”

“Them?”

“You’ll see when you come for dinner. Wednesday at six.” Then she hung up. Lauren would be pleased to know that in addition to maintaining her bullshit meter, Marian Young is also still the queen of the Last Word.

My Thoughts in Purple:

August 15th

I went to dinner at Lauren’s house tonight, and it was the strangest feeling because it’s only the [second time I’ve been there since she died.] Nice. "Second time" is a detail that really adds punch. She knows what she's facing and that it's going to be hard. Second makes it more real The first time was after the funeral, but that hardly counts because of all the other people and [all the casseroles.] unexpected and made me chuckle. The levity here mixed with the seriousness works well together You would think that the people bringing food would take the time to figure out that her mom has that weird aversion to things that can be served in a casserole dish, but they didn’t. [They brought their casseroles anyway, and I sat in the kitchen with my mom and Lauren’s brother Luke and wondered if anybody but me knew that all that food was going straight into the trash.] Nice

I’m not going to lie—I wasn’t sure if I could handle tonight. Going there is hard now, and today of all days was even worse since school starts tomorrow and Lauren won't be there and I will. I feel so guilty about that, even though I have no reason to, and when her mom called last week I tried to say that to her without actually saying it. [ But I forgot that her mom has the best ear for bullshit in the entire world.] Fun It took her about two seconds to figure out what I was really getting at, and she just said, “Kenzie, don’t be ridiculous. We want to see you, and I have something for you. It’s your senior year, and I think you’ll want them for your first day.”

“Them?”

“You’ll see when you come for dinner. Wednesday at six.” Then she hung up. Lauren would be pleased to know that in addition to maintaining her bullshit meter, Marian Young is also still the queen of the Last Word. Great setup for a great last line.

The questions:

Does this entry work as an opening?

Yes. I'm hooked and would keep reading.

Do you get a sense of Kenzie's voice, or is that something I need to work on?
I love the voice. It's sad, which fits someone who just lost their best friend, yet there's humor as well, which makes Kenzie sound like a survivor. She's getting through this even though it's hard.

Is this something that makes you want to read more about these characters?
Yes. I love the premise and I want to see how Kenzie does with the journals. I suspect she'll learn a lot about herself as well as Lauren.

Do you get that there is a closeness between Kenzie and Lauren, and also her family?
I do. Even though the mother is hurting she still reaches out to Kenzie. I love how Kenzie notices the casserole thing, which tells me she knows this family and how they'll react. Knowing Mom has a BS meter and always gets the last word also shows this.

Journal formats can be tough because they can come across as someone telling a story and you lose the sense of the character. This works because I feel Kenzie and it reads like a narrative. I particularly like how the dialog was handled here:
It took her about two seconds to figure out what I was really getting at, and she just said, “Kenzie, don’t be ridiculous. We want to see you, and I have something for you. It’s your senior year, and I think you’ll want them for your first day.”

“Them?”

“You’ll see when you come for dinner. Wednesday at six.” Then she hung up.
It has that, I'm telling you about a conversation vibe with " and she just said," but it doesn't try to do all the dialog that way. It flows right into traditional dialog format and style. And ends with "then she hung up," which pulls you back into the journal. A nice, seamless way to maintain the journal feel but still read like a narrative.

Easy peasy RLD today. I like this a lot and think it works.

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. I'll keep reading. I like the observation about the casseroles at the funeral. You might wish to switch passages one and two and start the novel with: I'm not going to lie - ... Some literary agents say that the first line of the novel is important and for me it seems like a better first line. Best wishes with the novel.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow! I really felt the story and the writing style was over the top. If the author is reading this and wants a critique I would love to read the first draft when it is completed. The first part of the story is a different take on grief and sorrow that is refreshing and honest. I want to read the end.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is really good. Which means I have nothing useful to say, but I thought I'd pop in and mention that, at least.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree, this was really well-crafted writing and an enjoyable read.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The voice her is utter perfection! I like Kenzie already - I appreciate her grief for her friend but also enjoy getting hints of her humor and knowledge of people.
    Very well done and I'm anxious to keep reading - what are "them?"

    ReplyDelete
  6. This one was of particular interest to me as I am working on something similar for a little project.

    As I read the journal entry, I got lost in it, giggling a bit here and there at Kenzie's unique voice and hints of humor. The observations were well played out, things like Kenzie knowing Lauren's mother isn't a fan of casseroles yet all those adults brought them anyway...along with the bullshit-o-meter remark. Nicely done all the way through.

    Good luck with this one. Very well written.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is really good, really strong writing, brave volunteer, and a wonderful story opening. I hope I have the chance to read the finished book someday. You're going places.

    ReplyDelete