Saturday, January 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Through a Child's Eye: Crafting a Strong Beginning With a Young Narrator

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:

Am I showing or telling? Do you think this is a strong enough beginning? How do I make the main character sound more like a 6 year old? Do you think 1st POV works here or should I make it 3rd POV?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy/Sci-fi


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Chapter One

Kaliare

It’s a lot easier to cry than to not. I don’t know how other six year olds feel about at it but it seems that I cry every time I don’t want to, or I’m not allowed to.

As the smell of sweat and alcohol enters my room everything starts spinning, even before my father’s arm slams into my back. I gasp trying to catch my breath, but all I find is the sweat and alcohol ripping through my lungs causing my head to spin again.

Slamming into my mattress I pray that I’ll pass out, but no, that’d be too merciful. Instead his leg rushes through my stomach ripping through it as if it were powdered pastries. This time all that rushes out of my mouth is blood. I gulp down what I can of the red liquid, tasting its crisp metallic and salty taste on my lips. After years of blood, I now find it comforting.

Before this I told myself that I’d be strong, but now screaming from the top of my lungs, tears rushing down my cheeks effortlessly and silently I know that I’ve lost an everlasting battle with tears. My mother once told me that tears have a price. For the longest time I didn’t understand what that meant, but now I do. Tears and beatings go hand in hand, for tears bring beatings, and beatings bring more tears.

I hold onto the bed sheets, my nails digging deep into the mattress layering it with blood. I’ll pay for the stains tomorrow, but for now they’re all I have.

Something pushes me deep into my mattress, and the world fades away.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Chapter One

Kaliare

It’s a lot easier to cry than to not. [ I don’t know how other six year olds feel about at it but it seems that I cry every time I don’t want to, or I’m not allowed to.] This doesn't feel like a six year old to me. It's too self aware, too contemplative.

[As the smell of sweat and alcohol enters my room everything starts spinning, even before my father’s arm slams into my back.] A little distant here, because the result of something is being described before the cause. So it feels a bit after the fact. I gasp [trying to catch my breath] telling motive, but all I find is the sweat and alcohol ripping through my lungs [causing my head to spin] telling reasons.

[Slamming into my mattress I pray that I’ll pass out, but no, that’d be too merciful. Instead his leg rushes through my stomach ripping through it as if it were powdered pastries. This time all that rushes out of my mouth is blood. I gulp down what I can of the red liquid, tasting its crisp metallic and salty taste on my lips. After years of blood, I now find it comforting.] The vocabulary and descriptions here feel much older than six. It sounds more like an adult.

[Before this I told myself that I’d be strong, but now screaming from the top of my lungs, tears rushing down my cheeks effortlessly and silently I know that I’ve lost an everlasting battle with tears.] Feels older than six My mother once told me that tears have a price. [For the longest time] She's six, so this feels odd I didn’t understand what that meant, but now I do. Tears and beatings go hand in hand, for [tears bring beatings, and beatings bring more tears.] This cause and effect idea feels like something a six year old could have figured out, and would try not to cry to avoid getting more beatings. "Don't cry or you'll be beaten" is child logic.

I hold onto the bed sheets, my nails digging deep into the mattress [layering it with blood. I’ll pay for the stains tomorrow, but for now they’re all I have.] Doesn't feel like something a child would think. I'm not even sure a six year old would say "mattress." Bed is more likely.

Something pushes me deep into my mattress, and the world fades away.

The questions:

Am I showing or telling?

Mostly showing, though there's a detached nature to this that makes it feel more told than it is. Despite the detailed descriptions, I'm not feeling there in the moment, because the narrator doesn't feel there in the moment. It reads more as if they're outside looking in, though I'd imagine someone could detach themselves from the event to help protect themselves.

Small tweaks would make this feel less detached. Instead of looking at this from the outside, with a rational adult mind, try thinking about what a child in this situation would feel and think.

For example...
As the smell of sweat and alcohol enters my room everything starts spinning, even before my father’s arm slams into my back.
This is a description of what happens, but it feels like someone has already gone through this and is relaying it after. The present tense makes the detached tone stand out even more, because present tense suggests this is happening as the narrator says it. Though if this is a regular occurrence in this child's life, it is quite possible they know exactly what's going to happen. But since they know, that provides an opportunity to really crank up the tension. Perhaps try something like...
The stink comes first. His sweat, his beer. My room spins and I want to run, but it's worse when I run. Daddy punches me in the back and I gasp. Now I'm spinning, too.
Specific, childlike details that are conveyed as the POV experiences them. Now that you know what happens in the scene, try shifting into the head of the character and think about what they see/hear/feel/think from their perspective. This is a small child, so they're not going to be so retrospective about it.

(More on narrative distance and telling here)

Do you think this is a strong enough beginning?
Violence out of context rarely feels as compelling to a reader as it does the writer, because readers don't know the characters or the reasons behind the scene. Since the focus in this is on the actions, and there's very little from the character, I don't feel a connection yet. A child is being beaten, perhaps worse, which is a horrific thing, but there's no story yet to drawn me in. I also know this is a YA novel, and this is a child, so this is either the protagonist in the past (so she survived it), or it's happening to someone else and this isn't the protagonist. All of this suggests the story hasn't actually started yet and this is all setup.

The opening could work well if it started a little earlier, and let the tension build. Once the violence starts it's over. But the anticipation, the fear, the hopes that it won't happen, are all very strong emotions that could be manipulated to make the reader care about this child and what is about to happen to her.

A word of caution, and this is purely a personal thing. I have heard quite a few agents/editors say they are immediately turned off by an opening scene that involves violence to children. If this is a critical scene and the story has to start here, that's fine, but as I mentioned, this is a YA novel, so this is something that either happened to the protagonist as a child, or is happening to someone the protagonist is connected to in the story in some way (or will be). It might be worth taking a minute to think about this opening and if the story really does need to start here. If it's here for shock value or because it's "action," you might reconsider it. If it's the moment when something happens, like the child is about to discover she can set people on fire and burns Dad to death, and her world changes after this night, then it could work as an opening.

How do I make the main character sound more like a 6 year old?
Think like a six year old. Which is easier said than done, I know. But try putting yourself in those young shoes. A good example is what she called her father. Most kids that age call their father Daddy, or some form of it. Da, Dad, Papa, etc. Referring to him as "my father" suggests an older child.

Children also see things very differently than adults. They don't have the world experience to understand everything that happens to them, so they won't put adult comprehension on events. The "beatings cause tears and tears cause beatings" line is a wonderful example of child logic. She knows this fact to be true because she experiences it. It never occurs to her that Daddy beats her because he's a terrible person who drinks too much.

Children see what they see, then try to make sense out of it using what limited world experience they have. There's still magic and wonder in their lives, so things typically don't make "sense" from an adult perspective. Like my young niece just said at Christmas, she asked Santa for a bike because a pony won't fit down the chimney. Adult readers can read between the lines and understand what the child doesn't. Though with YA, the readers are also not going to have adult world experience or perspectives, so you'd probably want to think about how a teen would relate to a child. They'll approach it from a teen's world experience perspective.

Emma Donaghue's, Room has a great five-year-old narrator for some ideas. You might also try visiting your local school and asking if you can chat with some kindergartners or their teachers. Or even hang out and observe and just listen to how six year olds talk.

(More on description through POV here)

Do you think 1st POV works here or should I make it 3rd POV?
That's your call. Either would work, and it depends on what you want to do. Third person would allow you to be more omniscient and avoid some of the "sound like a six year old" issues (as the narrator wouldn't be six, but an adult telling the story about the six year old), but you'd still need to capture the YA voice for the entire story. I assume this switches very quickly to a teen protagonist since it's YA. (If not, you might want to rethink if this is a YA novel or not)

(More on choosing between first and third POV here)

Overall, I'd take some time and think about what you want this opening to do. Are teens going to be drawn in by a scene with a six year old narrator? Would hooking them with an older character they can relate to be a better idea? Is this scene better suited to a flashback where you can describe it from an older girl remembering her childhood? Only you know what you want to accomplish with this scene, and you can make it work if you feel this is the best opening for the novel. But nothing here says "YA fantasy/sci fi" to me, which suggest this might not be the right place to start.

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. Hi author. This is certainly a confronting passage, kudos for not shying away from the big issues. I agree with everything Janice said and would .Ike to add a few comments.
    Firstly, I was confused about his leg rushing through her stomach, and assumed that was her conceptualization of sexual abuse, yet the next line about blood rushing from her mouth seemed to indicate that , she was being kicked or stomped on. It made me wonder how she survived it, given that it seemed to be a regular occurrence. If left untreated, such severe internal injuries might eventually kill her.

    Next, I was confused about the motivations. It seemed that the abuser came into her room and started to attack her. It seemed too extreme to subdue her if he was going to rape her. And as there was no trigger, it did not appear to be a form of punishment either. Most abuser's justify their actions as being provoked by the child ("I needed to teach them a
    Lesson") and the children, sadly, internalize this ("I guess I deserved it, I shoulnt answer back"). Maybe that's what your six year old narrator needs, some internal dialogue to help make sense of what was happening to her.
    Don't give up on this story, millions of kids are being abused, we should not silence them. They deserve a voice.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved your allusion to being stomped. A child would identify that sort of abuse like that.
    "I cry every time I don't want to," seems to suffice. I'd cut everything else out.
    I completely love Janice's edit of the following paragraph. I feel that tone suits the protagonist more.
    "I pray that I pass out-" Is a six year old too young to mention prayer?

    Overall, I do agree with the criticism that your tone is more mature than what you're opting for. A simple fix is the Scout Finch way to go - change the story to past tense and recall it throughout. However, that may not be desirable and that's understandable. It's always a challenge writing as a child, unless your character is somewhat of a Matilda - however, I also believe adults continually condescend to kids. We underestimate their thoughts and philosophies. We forget that we were children too, once, and we think we know better today - well, the moment you start thinking that, just watch a child play.

    I would want to continue reading. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I loved your allusion to being stomped. A child would identify that sort of abuse like that.
    "I cry every time I don't want to," seems to suffice. I'd cut everything else out.
    I completely love Janice's edit of the following paragraph. I feel that tone suits the protagonist more.
    "I pray that I pass out-" Is a six year old too young to mention prayer?

    Overall, I do agree with the criticism that your tone is more mature than what you're opting for. A simple fix is the Scout Finch way to go - change the story to past tense and recall it throughout. However, that may not be desirable and that's understandable. It's always a challenge writing as a child, unless your character is somewhat of a Matilda - however, I also believe adults continually condescend to kids. We underestimate their thoughts and philosophies. We forget that we were children too, once, and we think we know better today - well, the moment you start thinking that, just watch a child play.

    I would want to continue reading. :)

    ReplyDelete