Sunday, March 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Hooking the Reader in a YA Urban Fantasy

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Due to a technical glitch, this failed to appear yesterday. Making up for that today.

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 it 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: Three (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 5. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work? Does it hook you and make you want to read more? Is the voice YA enough?


Market/Genre: YA Urban Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Finn’s anger bled through the door in clouds of cayenne pepper. Another expulsion, she’d bet her life on it. Sarah sighed. Great; yet another new school she had to get used to. The secretary sitting on the other side of the small room glanced at her over horn-rimmed glasses. Sarah tucked her tattered sneaker underneath the good one and avoided her gaze.

Sophie stuck her head round the door. "I think you broke Beth’s nose," she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"Shh!" Sarah shot a glance at the secretary, but the woman had gone back to her computer.

"There's blood everywhere. She's going to the hospital.” Sophie was all sunshine and daisies; it nudged away Finn’s anger. “Her nose’ll be bent for the rest of her life!"

“Seriously?” asked Sarah. Underneath Sarah’s guilt lurked a warm curl of satisfaction. She squashed it. Feeling happy about breaking someone’s nose was petty. Despite how irritating she found the person it was attached to.

The door to the principal’s office creaked open. Sophie mouthed ‘see you later’ and slipped away. “I understand,” Finn was saying. “It won’t happen again.” The cayenne came back in full force.

Sarah winced. Definitely another expulsion. Finn stalked across the office and paused by her chair, his face dark. Sarah leapt up, opened her mouth.

“Not here,” he said, without looking at her. “Come on.” Sarah followed him to the car in silence, cringing as his anger got heavier with each step.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Finn’s anger bled through the door in [clouds of cayenne pepper.] Is this something she smells? Like she smells his emotions? Very cool. [Another expulsion,] I like how this shows this is a pattern with her she’d bet her life on it. Sarah sighed. Great; yet another new school she had to get used to. The secretary sitting on the other side of the small room glanced at her over horn-rimmed glasses. [Sarah tucked her tattered sneaker underneath the good one and avoided her gaze.] I'm not sure how tucking a sneaker under avoids a gaze

[Sophie] Perhaps reconsider using two S names right away. It can be hard to keep track of who is who stuck her head round the door. "I think you broke Beth’s nose," she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"Shh!" Sarah shot a glance at the secretary, but the woman had gone back to her computer.

"There's blood everywhere. She's going to the hospital.” Sophie was [all sunshine and daisies; it nudged away Finn’s anger.] Is this something Sarah smells? Perhaps make that more clear? Right now it reads as if Sophie is making Finn less angry, and I don't think that's the case since he isn't even in the room “Her nose’ll be bent for the rest of her life!"

“Seriously?” asked Sarah. Underneath Sarah’s guilt lurked a warm curl of satisfaction. She squashed it. Feeling happy about breaking someone’s nose was petty. Despite how irritating she found the person it was attached to. Funny.

The door to the principal’s office creaked open. Sophie mouthed ‘see you later’ and slipped away. “I understand,” Finn was saying. “It won’t happen again.” The cayenne came back in full force.

Sarah winced. [Definitely another expulsion.] Perhaps hint at why this is bad for her? Finn stalked across the office and paused by her chair, his face dark. Sarah leapt up, opened her mouth.

“Not here,” he said, without looking at her. “Come on.” Sarah followed him to the car in silence, cringing as his anger got [heavier] since she's use scent to describe his anger so far, using weight here felt off. Perhaps "stronger?" or something to continue the scent theme? with each step.

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?


It took me a minute to ground myself, but it has some interesting things happening here. Since it opened with Finn, I thought he was my POV character, so it took me a minute to figure out Sarah was my POV, and that Finn is an older brother or guardian dealing with her actions at school. You might consider making that just a little clearer so the reader isn't struggling right at the start. (readers chime in here in case this was just me)

It has conflict right away, which is good. Sarah broke Beth's nose, and it looks like she gets into trouble a lot and has to change school a lot. I'm curious about why and suspect it has something to do with her smelling emotions.

However, she doesn't seem too upset about being expelled again, even though she says she'll have to get used to another school. I'm not sure if getting expels bothers her or not. If this bothers her, that would help show the stakes and suggest what might befall her now that this has happened again. Getting expelled isn't good, but I'm not sure what it's specifically bad for them.

(Here's more on crafting an opening scene)

2. Does it hook you and make you want to read more?

I'd read on. I get a "folks on the run" vibe here, like Sarah has a power and keeps using it, so they have to keep changing locations to stay hidden. If they're on the run there's likely a reason, and I'm curious why. What she can do intrigues me, though I'd like to see a little more of it in action here. It suggests she smells emotions, but it's not consistent. I'm also not sure if this is the reason for the fight or two separate issues.

If the power is related to the behavior, perhaps show some hint of that, like have Sarah think about what Beth did that triggered her ability and caused the punch to the nose. It can be subtle, but a hint would help readers put it all in context. (If this is something she and Finn are going to discuss once they're alone, then you can wait until then)

I like that her powers are slipped in casually, just something she does, not a "big thing" that draws focus. It's who she is and this is how she uses it. Perhaps consider a few more examples of her using it though, to make it clear. There were a few places where I think she used it, but wasn't sure. It would also be fun to see why she uses it--as in, how does it help her interact with her world. It seems like a powerful and useful trait if she can smell emotions and take advantage of that knowledge.

(Here's more on hooking readers)

3. Is the voice YA enough?

Feels YA to me. A school setting also helps with that, as school tends to evoke images of teens and kids.

(Here's more on crafting character voices)

Aside from some confusion over who was who (four names at the start can be a little hard to follow, especially when two start with the same letter), this has the right pieces for a good opening. Something has happened (a fight), there's impending conflict (Sarah vs Finn, even if I'm not sure what that is yet), and stakes (this is bad, even though I'm not sure why yet). If this dives right into the problem after this, it should work to draw readers in. If not, then consider a few tweaks to give a better sense of what the conflicts and stakes are to help hook the reader.

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 liked it and would also read on. A good clean opening to me trumps trying to yank me into a book. So make sure we know where we are and what the cayenne pepper vapors are all about. Does anyone else notice them or are they just seen and felt by her. If you said "Her Fathers anger..." instead of Finn I would have been far more grounded and intrigued. I got the tennis shoe reference, BTDT, good detail :) The voice was fluid and not overbearing and had a young feel to it. I hope you finish what seems like a great story. Write on!

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  2. I have to admit I didn't get the smelling thing at all. I thought it was just an odd way to describe the anger feeling. I don't read fantasy very often so that's probably why it went over my head. And I'm sure if I'd read the cover blurb it would have grounded me better. I also thought Finn would be the POV and was thrown when we switched to someone else. Otherwise I liked the writing and would read on.

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  3. I liked it too. I did get confused at first as well. I don't think you need to use Finn's name at all. Just start with "Anger bled through the door in clouds of cayenne pepper." That would anchor us into Sarah.

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  4. I was confused by this opening as well. I didn't know she was able to smell people's anger. I, too, would open with the focus on Sarah not Finn. There was a place where it sounded like she head-hopped, but I guess it had more to do with her powers.

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  5. It looks like others have commented on what gave me pause. Janice also did an excellent job with pinpointing ways to improve.

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  6. I was a little confused at the start for all the reasons already mentioned in the post, so I won't repeat. I think you could drop a couple clues about who Finn is, why she broke someone's nose and/or more about the expulsions. I think a little more clarity up front will really ground & hook readers.

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  7. Cayenne's confusing, but I'm intrigued. The shoe line worked for me; I actually really liked the tattered shoe detail, since it suggests they're on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Also, I'm a total sucker for a delayed confrontation, like the one you end the snippet with. Soooo, what's Finn gonna say??

    *Does* Sarah smell emotions? If so, I'm not sure that sunshine has a smell.

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  8. Thank you Janice and everyone, this is great feedback! Sarah is an empath so she can usually see or taste emotions - will make this clearer.

    Most of these things I can already see how to fix, so I'm super pleased! :)

    Thanks again,

    Laura

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