Sunday, March 23

Real Life Diagnostics: POV and Voice in a YA Historical Opening

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 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: Six (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 3. 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:

Am I doing POV correctly? Is the "voice" appealing to you? Does it grab you as a first scene should?


Market/Genre: YA Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The story takes place during World War 1, beginning in 1917 and ending in 1921. I am trying to convey a young man’s struggle with unaddressed emotional baggage. The passage ends with a snapshot of the difficult relationship he and his father share.

The potatoes within the bag shifted quickly, and wrenched the sack from my shoulder. I flinched, as the burlap shaded long strips of white over several more permanent scars. I left the bag on the ground, and turned to sit on the tailgate. It was another hot, spring day, and my energy was expended by the time I finished feeding the chickens. That was three hours ago.

Across the crabapple-lined entrance, which led out to the road, a ranch-style house sprawled out gently over the top of a small rise. Behind it, across the hard-packed dirt yard—dotted with patches of grass trying to grow through the clay—stood a tall barn, it’s paint peeling from past summers of oppressive heat. A run-in shed stood to the right of the barn; it’s entire front end open towards where I stood, and smoke curling from the stone chimney.

I wiped my forehead dry, and bent down to lift the bag. A wheelbarrow waited on the other side of the wagon. I walked towards it, grimacing from the weight of the bag pressed to my chest, but also from other things too painful to mention.

I pushed the wheelbarrow down to the barn, untied the sack, and looked into it. A foul smelling juice lifted itself upwards. I reached an arm through the top of the bag, and pulled out the split vegetable.

“Is that you, son?”

The question came from the other side of the wall. I threw the potato out the open doorway, and walked stiffly into the shed.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The potatoes within the bag shifted quickly, and wrenched the sack from my shoulder. I flinched, as the burlap [shaded long strips of white over several more permanent scars.] I don't know what this means. Also, he probably can't see what the bag does to his scars, only feel. If he's avoiding his emotional issues, would he think about his "permanent" scars here at all or block them out? I left the bag on the ground, and turned to sit on the tailgate. It was another hot, spring day, and my energy was expended by the time I finished feeding the chickens. That was three hours ago I'm a little ungrounded in this opening. It starts off with something hurting him, but he focuses on being tired, not hurt, so is the hurt not a problem?

Across the crabapple-lined entrance, which led out to the road, a ranch-style house sprawled out gently over the top of a small rise. Behind it, across the hard-packed dirt yard—dotted with patches of grass trying to grow through the clay—stood a tall barn, it’s paint peeling from past summers of oppressive heat. A run-in shed stood to the right of the barn; it’s entire front end open towards where I stood, and smoke curling from the stone chimney. Why does he suddenly decide to describe the area? He's sitting on a tailgate catching his breath, so what triggers this?

I wiped my forehead dry, and bent down to lift the bag. A wheelbarrow waited on the other side of [the wagon.] what wagon? If the wheelbarrow is his goal, then perhaps describe that and not the house and barn? I walked towards it, grimacing from the weight of the bag pressed to my chest, [but also from other things too painful to mention.] If he's avoiding thinking about this, he probably won't mention it. 

[I pushed the wheelbarrow down to the barn, untied the sack, and looked into it. A foul smelling juice lifted itself upwards.] The stimulus is after the reaction, so I don't know why he suddenly looks in the bag I reached an arm through the top of the bag, and pulled out the split vegetable.

“Is that you, son?”

The question came from the other side of the wall. I threw the potato out the open doorway, and walked stiffly into the shed. I like that he walks stiffly, as it hints at a problem, but all the focus has been on him being tired and sore so it's more likely to assume he's stiff from pain. If I hadn't known in the background information that he had issues with his father, this would not have suggested it to me.

The questions:

1. Am I doing POV correctly?


It's first person, but the narrative distance feels a little distant to me. The narrator seems to be describing his life from afar, not being in the moment living it. There's some telling that adds to this (several explanations of motives) and give it a third person omniscient feel overall.

With first person, readers typically get a lot of internalization because the narrator is narrating their own life. But there's nothing internal from the POV character. I'm not getting a sense of who he is or what he feels aside from a few external details.

(Here's more on developing your internalization)

Now that you have these details and setting established in your head, think about how the narrator sees them and how he'd describe them. What do they mean to him? Why does he pick that moment to tell the reader about them?

For example, does he look at the house and scan the area because he wants to avoid his father? Does he look around because he hopes no one saw him drop the sack? Or flinch from the pain he's hiding? If this is his POV, then why does he look at what he looks at?

Even if this is retrospective and he's telling the story from some point in the future, he'll know why he's telling readers these details at this moment. Even more so since he'll know what's relevant and what's not if it's all happened to him already.

(Here's more on point of view and description)

2. Is the "voice" appealing to you?

I'm not getting a sense of voice yet because it's almost all description about things that aren't relevant to the POV character. I don't feel that the details around him mean anything to him, they're just there. How would the narrator refers to things? This is his world so he'd judge it by how he feels about it and what matters to him, and those views will help create his voice.

I'm also not getting a strong YA voice from this yet. Historical YA doesn't have quite the same angsty tone as contemporary, but there's still a sense of the teen immersed in a teen world vibe. This narrator could be any age, and there's nothing yet that says teen. Even calling him son doesn't denote teen, as parents call their adult children son, and that was quite common during this time period.

You might consider looking at some other YA historical fiction for inspiration. Some good ones include: Between Shades of Gray, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, and Code Name Verity. You could also look at some nonfiction or journals from this era for a sense of slang and phrasing and how teens spoke during that time.

(Here's more on developing your voice)

3. Does it grab you as a first scene should?

Not yet, because nothing is happening and there's no conflict, problem, or mystery to draw me in. I suspect things are about to get tense now that his father is there, but there's no hint that the narrator is worried about anything or has any problem the reader might want to see solved. There's also no sense of stakes to make readers worry or care about this person.

Part of this is caused by the focus being on the setting and description and not on the character himself, and the lack of internalization. The scene is set, but the story hasn't started yet. You might consider looking for the spot where the conflict starts and lead up to that.

(Here's more on knowing where to start your novel)

Overall, I'd suggest pinpointing what the opening scene problem is and then start laying hints about that right from the start. If the narrator is struggling with an emotional issue, then let readers see him struggling right away. You don't have to explain it (now knowing why he struggles will create mystery and draw readers in) but a few hints will pique reader curiosity.

For example, if the narrator has a difficult relationship with his father, then he might be looking around the farm to make sure he doesn't run into Dad. If readers see him actively avoiding him, they'll wonder why and will read on to find out. If stakes are hinted at and they see that running into Dad is a bad thing, then they'll be both curious to see if the narrator does run into Dad, and worried what will happen when he does.

This type of situation puts the conflict right in the center and gives you reasons to describe the farm and get the setting details you want into the scene.

(Here's more on developing goals, conflict, and stakes)

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.

4 comments:

  1. You have a good sense for the tactile. I felt the bag and the wear on the characters soul. I would follow up with what Janice said after you finish the whole work. Don't get too bogged down in making this opening perfect if you are not done overall.
    I see that this can be very good but later, I see fine talent and you will fine tune your execution later. Write on...

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  2. Although I like the description of the farm, this started working for me in the last paragraph, when he responds to his father by walking stiffly into the shed. You might consider starting there, and feeding the first material (scars, setting description) in at natural spots later on.

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  3. All of these comments are great. I would add that the father's voice seemed to come from out of nowhere. Maybe you could preface it with something like, "I heard a movement from the other side of the wall," or something to introduce the idea that someone else is there. The first paragraph also seemed to go back and forth in time. In some of my initial attempts I had flashbacks close to the beginning and was advised against that. Now I work at going forward as much as possible. Keep on though, I see the beginning of a great story--but it sure is a lot of work to get it out--speaking from my own experience.

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  4. A little thing, but why is it `the' house instead of `my' house? (Unless he doesn't live there?) I like the description of the place, but I have no idea why it's meaningful to him. Is the peace in contrast to how he's feeling, so it jangles his nerves? Is he just back from being away, and everything that used to be familiar is suddenly strange? You might be starting at the wrong place, or the underlying thoughts just might not be in place yet. I agree with Harry Maxwell. If this is a first draft, keep going and polish later.

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