Saturday, April 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Historical Opening Grab You?

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: Seven

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 24. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

RESUBMIT: There's also a resubmit on the snippet about the teacher who goes to Arizona to teach for those curious to see how the author revised.

This week’s questions:

I think this opening is self-explanatory (at least, I hope it is!) but I'm wondering if it captures your attention enough. I'm also not sure about needing the name of a scientist in here (besides Madame Curie's name.)

Market/Genre: YA Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: It takes place in Charlotte, NC in 1950.

Daddy says women can’t be scientists.

But now I have proof he’s wrong.

I pick at the frayed edges of The Story-Lives of Great Scientists and stare out the kitchen window. If Madame Curie could make exciting scientific discoveries, why can’t I?

For one thing, I’ll bet my last dime that Madame Curie had rich parents who could afford to send her to the University of Paris.

For another thing she was white.

Only a few colored kids make it to college. And if they do, it’s just to the small colored schools. Not the fancy ones like Duke or the University of North Carolina. That’s where important scientists like Dr. Furchgott are born.

I look at the clock above the kitchen sink. Four o’clock. This day has flown by. Any minute my big brother Sam will push through the screen door wondering what’s for supper. Momma and Daddy will come in talking about work and expecting to smell dinner cooking. Big Momma will wonder why I hadn’t washed up the breakfast dishes and for the millionth time my little sister Gloria will ask me to untangle her Shirley Temple doll’s hair. Sometimes I feel like everyone’s maid—something I’d sworn I’d never be. I wish I can spread a pair of wings and fly away.

I push myself up from the kitchen table and lay the book on the shelf next to our Bible. Maybe I’ll have time to read more tomorrow. But school is starting back in three days and I had promised Mrs. Grier, my Chemistry teacher, to return it the first day. I’m only half done.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Daddy says women can’t be scientists.

But now I have proof he’s wrong.

I pick at the frayed edges of The Story-Lives of Great Scientists and stare out the kitchen window. If Madame Curie could make exciting scientific discoveries, why can’t I?] I like how this suggests she might confront Daddy over this, or at least know that he's wrong. she's questioning her world view, which also suggests the character arc she'll undergo.

For one thing, I’ll bet my last dime that Madame Curie had rich parents who could afford to send her to the University of Paris.

For another thing she was white.

[Only a few colored kids make it to college. And if they do, it’s just to the small colored schools. Not the fancy ones like Duke or the University of North Carolina.] This tells me she wants to go to a big college and study science, and her challenge is that she's black and likely poor [That’s where important scientists like Dr. Furchgott are born.] I had to look him up to know who he was, so you might add something that says who he is and how he relates to the narrator. Is this the science she wants to study? Is he who she wants to be? Does it matter thematically if her role model isn't a woman?

I look at the clock above the kitchen sink. Four o’clock. This day has flown by. Any minute my big brother Sam will push through the screen door wondering what’s for supper. Momma and Daddy will come in talking about work and expecting to smell dinner cooking. Big Momma will wonder why I hadn’t washed up the breakfast dishes and for the millionth time my little sister Gloria will ask me to untangle her Shirley Temple doll’s hair. [Sometimes I feel like everyone’s maid—something I’d sworn I’d never be.] I like how this reinforces her goal of what she want she wants from life and what she doesn't want, suggesting stakes. [ I wish I [can] could spread a pair of wings and fly away.] Does she equate this to college? Or is that dream as realistic as this one?

I push myself up from the kitchen table and lay the book on the shelf next to our Bible. Maybe I’ll have time to read more tomorrow. But school is starting back in three days and I had promised [Mrs. Grier, my Chemistry teacher,] Did women teach chemistry in the 50s? She says first line that woman can't be scientists, yet her teacher is a woman who teaches chemistry, which implies she's a scientist to return it the first day. I’m only half done.

The questions:

1. Does it capture your attention enough?

I'd read on. I can clearly see where the conflict is going to come from, even if I don't yet know the specifics. She wants to go to college and be a scientist, and everyone around her will tell her she can't and society has made it very difficult (if not impossible at that time) for her to do so. A girl wanting to do something with her life while others try to keep her down is relatable and something readers can root for.

(Here's more on making readers care)

The setting itself is full of inherent conflict that relates to her goal, so I can already imagine some of the obstacles she'll likely face and how hard this is going to be for her. This will add extra suspense and tension throughout the book because I'll know how people are going to treat her and her dream.

(Here's more on using the setting to enhance the conflicts and story)

I did have a question about how old she was though. The voice here feels more middle grade to me than young adult, and sounds closer to twelve than probably the fifteen or sixteen she'd probably be to be taking chemistry. (Readers chime in here) Is she a young girl dreaming of the future or a teen close to sending in college applications?

I'm also curious about how difficult it was for women in general to attend Duke or a similar college in the 1950s. Does the narrator have one issue against her or two?

What I'm not seeing yet (though that might come right after this snippet) is the current scene goal. The basic conflict has been established, but now there's nothing really driving the scene aside from "I need to make dinner before people get home" and that doesn't feel strong enough to carry the story forward.

Since the book as proof against Daddy being wrong is the first thing readers, I'd love to see her action relate to that in some way. Like she needs money to apply to a big college and the book is what she's using Daddy to get him to agree to giving it to her. (whatever fits the story and plot of course) Now that the scene is set, what's her immediate goal? What's her immediate conflict? What's her immediate stakes?

(Here's more on goals, conflicts, and stakes)

2. Do I need the name of a scientist in here (besides Madame Curie's name)?

I don't think so. She found one name to use as an example and it's one pretty much everyone will know. She has an entire book of them, so we know that she has others. If it fit the story, you could also have her find the name of a black, female scientist to use as a role model at some point.

Overall, I liked it and I'd read on a little longer to see where it went. It feels like it has a solid underdog plot, which I usually enjoy.

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. Thanks, Janice. Your comments about needing an immediate scene goal are well taken and you're not the first person to say Lillie sounds younger than she really is. Part of my problem is that girls in 1950 didn't sound like/act like girls today. Guess I need to read more YA historical fiction set during that time period! So these are things I still need to still work on. I appreciate your honest feedback on this first page and look forward to hearing what your readers say too! Many thanks for your excellent blog.

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    1. Glad it was helpful. What you might try is to toss in some more details that say "teen" to get around the 1950's voice issue. Like the fact that she's taking chemistry, that's a good one, but it comes at the end of the page so the younger idea is already formed. Try adding one at the beginning to establish her age. If she's old enough to drive you could mention that in some way (she has to drive to the market for X reason, etc). Or if she's thinking abut prom, or something else that says X age (whatever her age is)

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  2. A couple of more thoughts about her age: "The Story-Lives of Great Scientists" sounds like a book for an 8-12 year old. Could the teacher lend her something more sophisticated, like an old science journal or encyclopedia? Even changing the title to "The Lives of Great Scientists" would help.

    Not knowing who Marie Curie is also makes her seem younger. If she knows enough about the world to know which colleges are good for scientists and to know who Dr. Furchgott is, I suspect she might already know about Marie Curie, too. Maybe she could be finding out about other female scientists, or finds some fact about Curie that would help her convince her father?

    Overall, though, this is a strong opening!

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  3. Unless it's an actual book, I'd much prefer "The Lives of Great Scientists"; "Story-Lives" seems redundant and possibly a tad childish.

    I really love the jump from "Madame Curie did it, so can I!" to "But then, there are these obstacles..." I also like the implications that her family won't support her dream.

    What I understand of the plot seems borderline generic--young girl with a dream and no support--but your writing catches my interest, and I'd definitely read on.

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  4. I liked this and would read on. I would like to see a slower version. Don't jump around between big details like social struggles, stick to one and drive on it, see if you can fit others in with it. Were all familiar with the time, I want to know a bit more about her.
    I know you chose Madame Curie as an example but Dr Carver was also famous.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver

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  5. I also got the impression she was younger. Does the father have the money to send her to school? I'm betting he doesn't and that's why he's trying to discourage her unless he's worried about her safety as well in that era.

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  6. Thanks everyone for taking the time to give me feedback on this--that is so kind of all of you! FOr the record, "The Story Lives of Great Scientists" does sound young, but in fact (I saw a few pages on Google) it's an incredibly detailed and high level book. I was afraid it would have been too adultish for my character! I wanted to use a real book, but the journal idea is good too. Actually, all of your ideas are good. I'll have to mull each one over. BTW, father doesn't have money for college. They are middle class family and he's saving to buy into the funeral home where he works. And yes, he's also very traditional and doesn't see that being a scientist is the right type of work for his daughter. Truly appreciate everyone's input!

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  7. Not to be overly obvious - is there a boy she likes that she also want to prove wrong beside her father? Or a boy she is afraid might find out about her love for science? A love interest will turn this teen right away. I don't know if this fits your story.

    I like this opening and feel a powder keg about to go off between her father and this girl, especially if dinner isn't done.

    I do think it is the focus on the father that makes this feel more MG. Teens often worry more about the thoughts of their peers with parents second. Obviously, there are many battles with parents, but a little shift in your character's thoughts could make this feel YA also. You do want to honor the era, but the character must also feel YA to a reader today.

    I would keep reading.

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  8. thanks, Rubiana. Not a love interest yet…he factors in way later in the story! But your thoughts about fathers vs.boyfriends/ MG vs YA is very interesting. Thanks for your input!

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